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To read New York Mosaic -- a collection of three novels by Isabel Bolton, written in the late 1940s and early '50s and recently reprinted by Steerforth Press -- is to be placed in the company of a genteel and sharp-eyed maiden aunt, one who moved through the world of New York high society captured by Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth, and later the Manhattan literary circles of the Algonquin era. You will find your old aunt a little breathless at times -- taking too much satisfaction in the description of a flower-decked folly at the World's Fair or the perfect leaf-green cocktail dress. (She describes things as "gay" or "splendid.") But she is by no means frivolous. She possesses a ferocious judgment, and reminds you -- in a way that is oddly moving -- of the atmosphere and concerns of another age.
Beyond the lamplit Upper East Side drawing rooms and idle cocktail party chatter described so deftly in these stories loom the shadows of big events -- the Second World War, the atom bomb, modern art filling the museums, the growing practice of psychoanalysis. In your aunt's voice you hear how shattering these advents were to the old conventions. Bolton's voice is stylized and discursive, painting detailed pictures in quick strokes, yet broad in its historical perspective. Bolton's detractors call it "old-fashioned" and her converts "delicate," "dry" and "precise." The words of praise come from none less than Diana Trilling and Edmund Wilson, who argue that Bolton has a pointillist's touch: Up close, it's just a bunch of pastel dots, but from the right distance, powerful figures coalesce.
The first novel in the collection, "Do I Wake or Sleep," set in 1939, is the story of a strikingly beautiful young woman who has fled Italy and disastrous early marriage for a gay life in New York. She seems to have shrugged off her memories of life under fascism, until we learn that she flirts and charms with a desperate agenda. "The Christmas Tree" takes place over a few days at the close of 1945, when an elderly Upper East Side matron casts backward to the idyllic holidays of her youth and forward to the coming reunion of her shattered family. In "Many Mansions," an 84-year-old woman reads over a novel she wrote years before and muses on her life and looming death. I thought the grand symbols rumored to be hidden in Bolton's work were perhaps a little too hidden, but I was grateful for the detailed foreground. Bolton has re-created a slice of New York in the '40s -- when a "modern" girl still wore gloves to match her hat and a skyscraper was a twinkling marvel -- all the while managing a gentle plumbing of social conscience. While these novels aren't lost classics, they provide a few missing tiles in the mosaic of postwar American literature, and we are richer as readers for the restoration. -- Salon