Book Review: Life With Father

Life with Father was first published in 1935, and set in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Four years after the publication of the book a stage version was produced which became the longest-running non-musical performance on Broadway, going for seven years. In 1947 a film was also made based on the book. Needless to say, the story was an instant classic and remains enjoyable today.

Life with Father is written from the perspective of Clarence Day, Jr. Clarence Day, Sr. is his father and the main actor in the Day family’s daily drama. Father is a stubborn man who has worked hard to get to the top of the socio-economic ladder, and he is quite willing to work hard to stay there. However, his own quirks and his rambunctious family constantly place a strain on the principled life he would like to lead. Nevertheless, he does his best to impose his version of order on the world, and with his stubborn yet caring personality he is usually able to do so.

Father is not always a likable character, as even his morals and personality leave something to be desired. This is especially true when it comes to tact and generosity. It is not that Father is mean; his intentions are good, but he expects things to be a certain way, and when they are not how he expects, he is likely to lose his temper. Father is also strongly opinionated, and does not care if there are people with other opinions or ways of doing something; he always believes that his way is the best and he is slow to listen to other’s ideas.

As for the rest of the family, they are rarely discussed in detail. There is a fair amount of space dedicated to Vinnie Day, Clarence Sr’s wife. She, too, is quite the character, and became the protagonist of Life with Father‘s sequel, called Life with Mother. In addition to managing the household and making sure that things are exactly how her husband likes them, Vinnie has her own vibrant social life and a love for traveling. Father adores her, but is also frequently frustrated by her frivolous spending and inability to keep good records. Despite their disagreements and repeated frustrations, the Days remain intensely dedicated to each other and have an enduring marriage.

This spring I took a class over Modern American Short Story Cycles. At the end of the semester, the final project was to come up with my own definition of a short story cycle as the genre currently has no set definition. I then analyzed a work which had at one point been called a short story cycle (or something similar) through the lens of the definition I came up with. With this class fresh in my mind, I am tempted to classify Life with Father as a short story cycle. Each chapter is a contained story that could logically stand on its own, but together they make much more sense. Unlike many (but not all!) short story cycles, the characters are always the same. Like many characters in short story cycles, Father could be taken as a composite character: one who represents a way of life for a group of people. Perhaps Mother is, too, but no one else. However, the main force behind my definition was that the book as a whole must be something more than the sum of its parts. In collecting the short stories, something more than a coherent story should come across. I do not find this to be the case with Life with Father. It is more like a novel, despite the plot being broken up and unique to each chapter. The whole is solidly the result of the pieces put together. They make a larger whole, but nothing more.

This is not to say that there is no deep meaning to Life with Father, nor that the format does not benefit it. On the contrary, the format of short vignettes allows the story to span decades of the Day family’s life, and offers an easily attainable view of late 19th century upper-class America through bite-sized, slice-of-life stories. The writing is smooth and the chapters short, making them easy to read and keep reading. Overall, the message is a heartwarming, if relatively lightweight, view of a close-knit family and their ability to make distinctively strong personalities coexist well.

Ultimately, I have decided to give Life with Father four stars, and recommend it to anyone interested in the turn of the 19th century.

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