None of the various book covers seem to capture the essence of MacDonald’s 1954 novel, Contrary Pleasure. It’s not about “trading honor for desire” or “beautiful people hiding secrets.” If you are looking fir a crime thriller such as MacDonald became known for, you are in for something completely different. Contrary Pleasure has some hints of crime here and there with a petty theft, adultery, a beating, a drunken brawl, but it’s really little more than a taste. There are nevertheless hints of violence in thoughts such as plowing the family car across the well-groomed lawn and into the family gathered there. The main portion of the book is a grand sweeping novel about a family and its generations weathering the slings and arrows of life and coming to terms (or not) with how things have worked out for them.
While MacDonald didn’t fill this one with fast-paced action, he created full-dimensional people who we see through each of their own eyes and thoughts. At once we get MacDonald’s critique of suburban life and the sameness of it and the idea that many find their slots in such a safe and burdenless life and don’t push themselves to do anything that special. The critique is that nothing extreme can happen anymore. Everything is taken care of with the safety net of government. Risk is gone. But, we also get the idea that there is a power in obtaining safety and comfort – that the flip side is precarious. Without long lasting marriages, there is little stability. Without a steady corporate job, the ability to support a family is precarious.
The novel centers around the Delavan family whose patriarch founded a textile mill in Stockton, New York, somewhere between Erie, PA, and Buffalo, NY. He also bought acreage deeded to his children who now as our novel begins have taken over the mill as the textile industry founders in that part of the country and the kids are now grown with families of their own in the adjoining plots set up by the family patriarch.
Ben, the eldest, runs the plant, but feels the years as he turns fifty and a bit aged and flabby. The responsibility of running the company weighs heavily on him. He muses about the thousand choices in life and the way that there are a thousand paths one might take. One of those paths though is a buyout offer and it’s an offer he seriously considers throughout the book.
Quinn though, one of the twins, is described as one of the weak ones, the brave little men in parades who carry big banners, but are so unsteady the banner begins to fall. He has an executive job as a result of his birthright, but has done nothing to earn it. Quinn is rather unsatisfied and seeks solace in an affair with a mill worker.
Alice is the other twin and she married George, who went into the construction business, and she muses that from the first day he went into business for himself, she lost him and he became a stranger. George accepted her as part of the home, part of the machinery.
Robbie is the youngest sibling and his story centers around meeting Susan in Mexico City, thinking they would return married to this big family and Robbie would go to work in the family business.
The younger generation also appears with Ben’s kids, Brock, thrown out of college after stealing from classmates to support a woman he met in a bar one day while ditching class. Ellen is his sister and she’s finishing high school and dealing with boyfriends and country clubs.
Each family member seems to get their own chapter, although some get more attention than others.
There isn’t necessarily one overarching plot line so much as the tension between living the safe suburban life and doing the totally unexpected rebellion and that theme pops up over and over for both the older generation and the younger one.