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The Scarlet Letters.

The Scarlet Letters By Louis Auchincloss

At age 86 most lawyers have retired to enjoy their grandchildren and the fruits of their labor. Louis Auchincloss, attorney and novelist, however, is still working at his second career. For many years a trusts and estates lawyer at a prestigious Manhattan law firm, Auchincloss began publishing short stories and novels as a sideline. His practice provided rich sources for characters and plots. At some point he decided that he wanted to write full time and left the practice of law. Nevertheless, many of his navels and stories, including the novel under review, deal with lawyers and law firms, usually in a Wall Street setting, with investment bankers or wealthy testators as clients.

In this, as in other Auchincloss works of fiction, the plot is merely incidental to rich characterization. In this novel, and without giving anything away, the story involves three adulteries, hence the title, linking the lawyers and clients of a Wall Street law firm. Auchincloss intertwines the personal and professional lives of his characters giving the reader an insight into the working of great New York law firms, their lawyers, spouses, and clients. The author brings to this novel his usual highly polished prose, a sense of irony and detachment, sympathy for the problems of his affluent characters, and a sense that their lives are neither tragic nor comical, just simply different from ours.

Auchincloss has received bad press from academics. He writes in the style of Henry James and William Dean Howells, his literary heroes and ancestors, never deals with contemporary social problems, and his characters are seldom poor. They may not all be wealthy. Some, in fact, have come down in the world but they inevitably descend from "good families? To some, this is not politically correct or acceptable. Yet, the people he chooses to write about have been disproportionately influential in the economic, social, and cultural life of our country. More to the point, he knows this world well since he was born, raised, and has lived in it all his life. Therefore, he writes about it with great authenticity.

Finally, the author is a great stylist. The Scarlet Letters is only 177 pages long, but each page can be savored. His books must be read slowly, as one reads a case in law school, in order to get the full flavor. When I read any of his novels or stories I find myself underlining many of his felicitous turns of phrase. Can one ask more from a novelist? In his mature, concise style Auchincloss has been able to write in less than 200 pages what another great American author, say John Steinbeck or John O'Hara would in 500 pages. He does so by suggestion, using vignettes to illustrate his story without unnecessary detail, and ruthless editing of superfluous words. It is sad to reflect that this will probably be one of Louis Auchincloss' last novels.

Published by Houghton Mifflin Company (177 pages, $24), The Scarlet Letters can be found at any major bookseller.

Nestor Enrique Cruz is of counsel to Carr, Morris & Graeff, P.C., a corporate law firm in Washington, D.C.
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Author:Cruz, Nestor Enrique
Publication:Florida Bar Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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