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Nora Johnson’s “The World of Henry Orient,” first published in 1958, is a sad, beautiful story about the pains of early adolescence.
The protagonist, Marian Gilbert, is thirteen at the outset of the book. She is lonely, but only half-aware of that fact. She attends a small girls’ prep school on the Upper East Side, and feels lost in a “fog,” since she doesn’t fit in there. The other eighth graders are wealthier, with society parents and homes on Park Avenue, and they know how to play “prison ball” in gym class.
Marian knows that the other girls look down on her. She feels embarrassed because her mother is divorced, and she lives on Third Avenue. She never invites her classmates home for lunch because she knows that they would disapprove of her household and of her mother’s roommate, the unfashionable and sarcastic Boothy.
Yet in the first chapter, Marian is faced with an exciting prospect—the possibility of friendship with another outcast of the Norton School, Val Boyd. Val’s parents flit about the world while leaving Val with a caretaker in the Village, and so she, like Marian, feels fatherless. Val is also ostracized at Norton, because she leaves school early each day and all the other girls know that she visits a psychoanalyst in the afternoons. To them, she seems neurotic and strange.
Val and Marian quickly form an intense friendship. At first they simply play games and spend Saturdays with one another. But soon they both become fixated on a single task: the secret worship of a gifted but lazy pianist named Henry Orient.
Val first loves Henry because she too wants to be a concert pianist, and she sees some of her own troubles reflected in his wild persona (and according to her shrink, she is also acting out some form of Oedipal complex). Marian follows, and begins to obsess over him too, even though she doesn’t really feel the same attraction. Val and Marian clip articles about him from the society papers and stalk his concerts at Carnegie Hall.
But the adult world—here personified by Val’s cold-hearted and selfish parents—ultimately encroaches on their project.
Isabel and Arthur Boyd return to New York to begin to reinitiate Val into their society, pulling her away from the young, pure love of Marian and into their own problems. Marian expects Val to resist them, but she doesn’t, and Marian begins to resent them.Val’s psychiatrist, Dr. Braintree, becomes an even more formidable enemy, telling Val that she must grow out of such stubborn, us-against-the-world friendships with other girls. Marian tries to save the friendship by having Val meet Henry in person, but her plan goes awry, pushing Val further into the world of her parents.
With such a straightforward arc, “Henry Orient” feels almost like an extended short story, building up the action slowly and deliberately throughout the book, in order to set up the powerful emotional impact of its climax and conclusion.
Val is, in a sense, Marian’s first love, or at least the first friend whose love has changed her. Val brings Marian happiness, but that’s matched by fear. The book is not cheerful in the end, as Marian begins to face the many different kinds of lonely that adults know. But it’s perhaps one of the most moving conclusions to a book I have ever read, leaving the reader alone with Marian in an excruciatingly vivid moment of first loss.
It’s also significant that this book, while not very well known, has been a source of inspiration for juvenile and adult writers over the past fifty years, as well as for filmmakers. The book was spun into a slightly happier 1964 film starring Peter Sellers, and more recently both the book and film inspired the Scarlett Johansson indie favorite “Ghost World” in 2001.
—Reviewer Alexandra N. Atiya can be reached at email@example.com.
The World of Henry Orient
By Nora Johnson
Green Mansion Press
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