Today I finished reading Herbs and Apples, the first novel by Helen Hooven Santmyer. It was originally written in 1925 and, after the success of “…And Ladies of the Club” in 1984, was reprinted sixty years later. The story is autobiographical, and tells the story of a girl named Derrick, who believes she is destined for literary greatness. Santmyer’s entire oeuvre uses Xenia, Ohio as its base and this novel planted the seed for her autobiographical fiction. As with Ohio Town, her nonfiction history of Xenia, the characters and events in Herbs and Apples foreshadow and mirror what would be developed in her colossal literary masterpiece, “…And Ladies of the Club“.
Herbs and Apples did not draw me in as the prior two Santmyer books I read. Had I embarked on reading Santmyer’s works in chronological order, I would have given up after this book. Herbs and Apples was a chore to get through; it doesn’t normally take me two weeks to finish a 330-page novel. Granted, many evenings at home were spent watching Winter Olympics coverage yet I had no drive to grab this book and read it other than during my lunch or dinner hours at work. The story did not interest me until halfway through, after Derrick and her friends move from Tecumseh, Ohio to New York City to find jobs as well as themselves. Santmyer excels in her intimate depictions of a young person’s psyche. She captured most vividly the desires and insecurities of her, mostly female, characters. She brought this skill back to life inside every character’s mind fifty-seven years later when she wrote “…And Ladies of the Club”.
Derrick is an aspiring playwright and poet and Santmyer, when she wrote this novel at the age of thirty, was already an award-winning poet. She intersperses poems, especially lengthy sonnets, throughout the novel. The poetry seemed gratuitous, boring and a blight on the flow of the story. I am not a fan of poetry, yet did not want to read the sonnets just to get them over with (although as sure as you know that I just wanted to skip them). I forced myself to reread them many times over, including the three pages at the beginning of the book, in an attempt to understand them and their relevance to the story. This made the reading experience feel like an English literature class and ruined the “pleasure reading” experience whenever I encountered another poem.
The English language from the mid-twenties probably regarded words such as “anyone” and “someone” as two words. These words, as well as many others, are spelled as two throughout the book. This gave the reading eye a sudden and abrupt interruption, which ruined the flow. I concede that this might not have been so jarring a reading experience in 1925. Also, Santmyer spells words with ligatures, such as æ as in “mænad” or œ as in “manœuvring”. This in itself is not a problem, but whenever a ligature is used the printer used a different font, which made the words look ridiculous. A second fault with the printing I found –at least with the imprint I read, the cover of which is included in this review– is the kerning. Maybe I am being too picky or maybe there are others who will agree, but this was the most extremely kerned typeface I have ever read. A punctuation mark that followed a lowercase y was practically swallowed by the y’s descending tail. I could not tell if the mark after a y was a period or a comma. The kerning resembled my first attempts at typing while still in primary school, when I didn’t know any better to put a space after a comma or if I was too obsessed with cramming a word onto a single line that I squished the letters all together.
Herbs and Apples was not a joy to read, however Santmyer would certainly develop into a writer deserved of her New York Times #1-bestseller status. Read this novel to see where her great American novel first took seed.