The Yellow Room

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel The Yellow Room was the latest selection for my mystery book group, and we were supposed to meet this evening at Bloodroot, which advertises itself as a feminist vegetarian restaurant and bookstore. It’s the site where the idea for the mystery group began, so it was the perfect place to hold a meeting. But the weather forecast for this evening called for lots of snow, and we cancelled. (The snow has yet to arrive, though, and it appears as though the weather forecasters may have gotten things wrong. Still, the backroads of Connecticut are narrow, hilly, and winding, and I didn’t want to take my chances.)

It appears from conversations I’ve had, emails I’ve gotten, and Emily’s post on the book that our meeting would probably have turned into a lively conversation about how bad the book is. I can sum up my assessment best by saying that as I neared the end, I didn’t care in the least who the murderer was. That’s a sure sign of a bad mystery novel if there is one, right? I was just eager for the thing to be over so I could move on to something else.

It’s been over a week since I finished the novel and the details are already beginning to fade (another bad sign); what sticks in my mind is the awkward way Rinehart moved her characters around. It seemed like they kept making the same movements from room to room, kept taking the same walks over and over again, and kept repeating the same conversations, covering a little new ground now and then to move the plot along, but not enough to make things exciting. It was wearying. I also found the characters either stereotypical, dull, or completely unbelievable. There’s a romance between two central characters, and maybe this is my fault for being a sloppy reader, but it took me a long time to catch on that this was happening, and when I did catch on, I found it completely contrived and silly. I didn’t understand why he cared about her and even more so why she cared about him.

So what is the story about? A young woman, Carol, travels to Maine to ready the family’s summer home for her brother who is on leave from the war (the novel was published in 1945), and one of the servants finds a woman’s dead body in the closet. This is the sort of thing that never happens in that small coastal Maine town, and the local police force doesn’t seem to be up for the job. Fortunately a neighbor, Jerry Dane, knows just what to do, and he conducts his own investigation, while at the same time recovering from his war injuries and wooing Carol.

The one interesting thing about the book is the way in which it is a product of its time; it’s one of those books that feels very dated, and it’s interesting to think about what makes it so. The class situation is largely at fault; Carol’s family is wealthy and spoiled, and it’s amusing to read about her awful sister who is socially ambitious and utterly heartless, and her horrible brother who is a womanizer who can’t accept that his “youthful exploits” might have some serious consequences. The novel shows how awful these people are, but there’s no sense that Rinehart is critiquing the class differences or the social system that created them. The servants are stereotyped figures, either unreliable and flighty or fiercely loyal, and I had a hard time caring that poor Carol had to manage with so few of them.

So I’m not interested in reading more Mary Roberts Rinehart, even though I did buy an edition that contains two other of her novels in addition to The Yellow Room. Fortunately, I only spent $4.50 on those three novels, so I don’t mind leaving the other two unread.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

11 responses to “The Yellow Room

  1. And fortunately you tipped the rest of us off before we might have picked it up. I like your points about what might date this book. The whole idea of why some work appears so dated and other work timeless. This might seem like a crazy example, but I had this experience with How the Grinch Stole Christmas this week. A book written in the 50s followed by an animated version from 1966 and the kids were glued to every word, every image.

    Enjoy the snow when it gets to you! We are blissfully buried here in DC right now.

  2. I only finished it a few days ago, and it’s already beginning to fade, and I agree that Carol’s and Dane’s “romance” made absolutely no sense. I was sure when I started the book, introduced to these obviously wealthy characters in the beginning, that the critique on social class would come, but it never did. Very disappointing all around, and I don’t blame you at all for deciding not to read the other books in the volume you bought.

    I can’t believe you haven’t got the snow yet. We’ve got about fifteen inches down here.

  3. Too bad the mystery turned out to be a dud. The story sounded promising, but it doesn’t seem like she delivered in the end. I think she was quite popular when she was writing, but it just goes to show you how tastes change and how some books simply don’t carry over to later generations. Maybe you’ll luck out and the snow will avoid you! Sometimes just the forecast of slippery snow is enough to make me want to stay inside!

  4. Heh, I’ve had some bookgroup discussions where the hilarity involved in bashing the book was by far the most enjoyable part of the experience! Too bad about this one.

  5. We have at least two feet of snow! Great reading weather; I finished my Hamish MacBeth last night.

    Speaking as someone who collects vintage novels (1920s-1950s), I know just what you mean about books that don’t age well. I think this shows up most in the types of relationships female characters have with others in their sphere — if they are “working women” their relationships with their bosses can be painful to read in comparison to those same relationships we have come to expect in contemporary novels — no critique forthcoming either. Same with marriage — some of my books portray it in a timeless way, and others, well, if I had lived in that novel, I would have been a spinster and proud of it. :)

    Here’s hoping your next book is much more satisfying!

  6. hobgoblin

    Terrible book. One of the worst, and an insult to other authors struggling to get published. There was no sense of how fiction is supposed to be crafted–the dialogue was unbelievable, the situations completely contrived, and the mechanics of the storytelling were broken down. The plot was interesting, but nothing worked to support that.

  7. zhiv

    My mom used to read a ton of mysteries when I was growing up. She stopped really “reading” and just powered through one after another. Rinehart was in that group, just more grist for the mill. Somehow I knew, from that period, that Rinehart was third rate. Am kind of surprised it made it onto your list, but I guess she wrote a lot of books and they sold well. No classic touches to it, I would guess, that would make it last.

  8. I sometimes think it’s more fun to read about books that really don’t work than ones that do! And I was most intrigued by your comments about why it might feel so dated. I think you have your finger on something there – if it operates from within the class system like that, it’s a book that has no perspective on itself, that doesn’t challenge the context in which it’s written, that isn’t considering what it’s representing while representing it. And that’s basically what thrills in books – the point of view that makes the reader say ‘Ohhhh! I never thought about it that way before.’

  9. Too bad for the book and too bad for the evening at the feminist vegetarian restaurant and bookstore (I would love to see what it looks like, are there pictures?). I read The Circular Staircase by Rinehart in 2008, it’s much older (1908) but it was also very stereotypical and naive. Somehow I excused its faults because it was still the early period for the genre, but if she hadn’t mended her ways 4 decades later, I guess it’s pretty discouraging. What are the others books from her you got for the bargain price?

  10. Too bad the book wasn’t very good and you didn’t even get to meet with everyone, eat good food and vent. Did you end up getting a lot of snow?

  11. Frances — we did end up getting some snow, but only 6 inches or so. It wasn’t much of a blizzard! It was a good choice to stay home, though, as the snow came at just the wrong time. How funny about The Grinch! That’s a sure test of whether something has lasted, right?

    Emily B. — yeah, there was so much here that could have been interesting, if she had developed it. But the class stuff just never went anywhere. I would love to talk to some Rinehart fans (even though it might require time travel) to see what they would say about the book and about what they like in her. I mean, it wasn’t even entertaining!

    Danielle — we did get snow, although it wasn’t quite the blizzard they were forecasting (which is good!). Yeah, the book was a dud, but it IS interesting to see what entertained people in the past. I really do wonder why she was so popular!

    Emily — yeah, and in this case we couldn’t even meet! Oh, well. Yes, mocking things can be quite fun :)

    Debby — one of the nice things about reading dated novels is that I can breathe a sigh of relief about living when (and where) I do and having the choices I do. Not to say that people won’t be breathing a sigh of relief about not living in OUR times, but so much has changed in the last century, and it’s easy to forget just how much.

    Hobgoblin — oh, you didn’t like it? I had no idea :)

    Zhiv — well, the nice thing about my mystery book group is that we are willing to take some risks with what we read, but it doesn’t always work out well. The book was definitely something to race through and consume, not to really read carefully. But for me, it wasn’t even that fun to race through, so it’s hard to get why others liked her so much.

    Litlove — very well put, that’s exactly it: the book has no perspective on itself. It just represents the class system and the dynamics of the summer colony, but there’s no reflection on it, nothing to learn. And I agree that it’s fun to read about bad books, and sometimes fun to write about them — it’s always interesting to think about what doesn’t work and why.

    Smithereens — there are a couple pictures on the website I linked to in the post; it’s really a fun place — they make a big deal about not doing any waitressing; everyone cleans up after themselves. You’ve also read Rinehart! How good to know something about another book of hers. No, she really didn’t learn anything all those years later, unfortunately. The other two are The Bat from 1920 and The Haunted Lady from 1942.

    Stefanie — I know! I got to write my post, though :) We did get snow, but not a lot — just 6 inches or so. Which is good! I’m no fan of snow :)

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