*One of my reading goals for 2015 was to read more works with a local connection, written by Indiana authors or maybe written about or taking place in (or near) my home state. I thus peppered my annual Deal Me In short story reading challenge’s roster with Indiana authors and also have in mind several novels as well. I was pointed to many of these longer works by Dan Wakefield’s introduction to the Indy Writes Books anthology, which I posted about in early January. This novel was one of those. It’s now an early favorite for my favorite book of the year.
**some spoilers follow**
“(I) hope this youngster will be able to realize how valuable a person he is,” said Dr. Bliss… “now that he has had his life handed back to him at such a price.”
Published in 1929, Magnificent Obsession was a refreshing break (from reading more contemporary authors) for me and recalled to my mind several other classic works. In brief, it’s the story of Robert Merrick, whose early life mimics that of countless other children of privilege. His grandfather – a great character who I loved – was a self-made millionaire, and the success of his company, Axion Motors, assures that no one in his family need “work” for a living again. “Bobby” is in full possession of this knowledge and behaves accordingly. For a while. Things change when he is injured in a boating accident and saved by a breathing apparatus borrowed from the house of a Dr. Hudson. What’s remarkable about that? Well, as the apparatus is being used to save Merrick’s life, the doctor himself is fatally stricken and could have been saved if HIS apparatus were not being used elsewhere.
(below: the edition I own)
Dr. Hudson was also the head of a neuro-surgical hospital – the same hospital that Merrick is taken to for treatment. The doctor was much loved and the staff of hospital naturally harbor some resentment of their young patient, whose life had been saved at the cost of their beloved colleague and friend. The staff behaves professionally, however, and keeps this information from him as long as possible, but he can sense something is wrong and eventually learns the truth from Nancy Ashford (another great character!), Dr. Hudson’s ultra efficient and matronly – though still relatively young – assistant who pretty much ran the business of the hospital. A long talk with Nancy leads Merrick to decide to dedicate his life to becoming a doctor himself in an effort to repay what he’d stolen from the world via Hudson’s death. This becomes the “magnificent obsession” in the title. Or at least one magnificent obsession.
The novel includes a tortured and convoluted – yet somehow still quite functional – plot that I think even Thomas Hardy would have been pleased to count among his own. It includes Hudson’s daughter, Joyce, a “wild child” herself who knew and had been interested in Merrick off and on before the accident. There’s Hudson’s young widow, Helen, who Merrick meets – not knowing immediately who she is to him – and “rescues” from driving her car off the road into a ditch (& I never cease to be amazed how charming and beautiful – and unattached! – women are unfailingly cast into the paths of literary protagonists. If only real life were so accommodating!). Douglas’s narration of their initial meeting in this way was one of my favorite passages of the book. Just as important, there’s Dr. Hudson’s “secret journal” discovered by Mrs. Ashford and Merrick. Written in cypher, it is slowly decoded and reveals Dr. Hudson’s “secret of success” – a kind of “pay it forward” approach to life based on the gospel of Matthew (chapter 6, verses 1-4).
“Take heed that Ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise you have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have the glory of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”
Worth noting is that Douglas began writing novels later than most, after spending time working as a minister. Though a bit of a heathen myself, I do like the sentiment of giving in secret. It seems too often philanthropy is engaged in as much for the recognition as to help those in need. I wish more people would understand that “verily” good deeds have their reward.
The book reminded me a little of 1918’s The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (another Indiana writer) in that involved the emerging automotive industry and the redemption of a formerly idly rich protagonist. It also called to mind the literary classic “Pride and Prejudice” in how Merrick, with his bottomless wallet, was continually putting things right in a Mr. Darcy-esque way – all in service of the lovely Helen Hudson, who liked him initially – until SHE found out who HE was to her. I’ll also admit that some of the books plot turns and twists were a little too convenient to be believable – which usually draws my ire as a reader – but somehow that never really bothered me in this book.
(below: an older edition – apparently the cover artist thought Robert Merrick must look like Tony Curtis…)
Have you read Magnificent Obsession? Or anything else by Douglas? I think I may give “The Robe” a try this year too – maybe it and “Ben Hur” would be a good Easter time reading mini-project. We’ll see. Maybe you’ve seen the blockbuster movie version of Magnificent Obsession, starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman? After reading up a bit on it, it sounds like it has some major differences compared to the book. Should I give it a try?