The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit II
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The novel focuses on the lives (most) of the protagonists from the first novel as they approach middle age. Unlike the The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, II was written in the first person of Tom Rath who narrates the story of his life. The tone of the novel and the behavior of the characters are dissimilar to the first novel, and some of the first novel's main characters - including Judge Bernstein and the family of Tom's boss, Ralph Hopkins - do not appear in the sequel. An addition to the story is Rath's son from his romance during World War II in Italy. He visits his father at the Rath home in Southport, Connecticut only to venture out on his own, eventually enlisting in the United States Army with a tour in Vietnam. He is killed there, closing the story of Rath's infidelity during his service.
Wilson's oft-used narrative, of a middle aged man in a relationship with a younger woman, forms the basis of the book. Rath meets the younger woman while on assignment to Washington, D.C. to attend a conference on mental health. Rath's boss, Mr. Hopkins remains interested in the issue and sends Rath to meet with high-level White House aides. With the assassination of the conference's main proponent (President John F. Kennedy) Rath begins a serious affair with the young woman assigned to assist him at the conference.
Rath returns home to Connecticut and soon realizes he has fallen in love with the younger woman and that his marriage of over 20 years is beyond repair. He decides to finally leave his wife. Doing so allows him more time with the younger women who Rath eventually marries and moves to start a new life with her in New York City.
Using Rath as the narrator gives Wilson the opportunity to delineate the trajectory of time. The book begins in late 1963, around eight years after the events depicted in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. While doing so Wilson shows Rath's feelings as his marriage breaks up, his estrangement from his three grown children, the end of his life in suburban Fairfield County, Connecticut, the happiness and stress of a serious relationship with a younger woman and the return and, later, death of his Italian son. That Rath ultimately overcomes those critical events and ends up a happy man is the main theme of this book.
However, the book is not as well thought out as the original. Unlike the conflicts of the first novel, Rath's ethical dilemma (i.e. attraction to a younger woman) proves too much for him to resist, and his reaction is far too predictable. He falls for the girl, struggles with guilt, finds a pretense to leave his wife, marries the younger woman, deals with the guilt. It also turns his wife, Betsy, into a rather minor character, using her more as a springboard for events rather than following her life and her emotions. She does eventually remarry, ironically, to an older man, and the best we can determine to a pleasant life. Rath's children get more play this time, but again, mainly as benchmarks advancing the notion of his new life and younger wife more than what they have become. An example of this is the vacation he takes to Mexico with his older daughter. Getting a chance to spend quality time with her after so many years she ends up meeting a young man while Rath fills his time drinking and lamenting his failures in life. They leave and return home, with nothing gained. That gives an idea of what Wilson used for the children's growth. The original novel had a flow which kept your attention, portrayed its characters in contrast with the story and lets them rise and fall. II doesn't. It's more of a Rath Time Line. In II once Rath meets the young women its pretty clear where the book is going. 'Gray' didn't do that, at all.
The novel was not a commercial success. Many fans of the first novel felt that it did not live up to the expectations set by the original. Written nearly 30 years after the original Wilson has clearly lost his dramatic flare in II. The book brings back most of the characters from 'Gray' but none in major roles. Mr. Hopkins, for example, a large character in 'Gray' is portrayed as a man who has lost his zest for life and who is clearly not the great leader of industry he had been back in 1955. He avoids conflicts and, seemingly out of his original persona, escapes to a private island paradise somewhere in the waters off of Florida. Off the grid, as it would be called today. As hard to believe as that is in Mr. Hopkins its much easier to comprehend if Wilson is writing about himself and his vision of an ideal end to the rat race. II also marked Wilson's last major effort in popular novel writing. His book What Shall We Wear to The Party? The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, Twenty Years Before and After was published in 1976 and was his last non-fiction effort. After his success with Suit and Summer Place in the mid-1950s, both of which were best-sellers and profitable motion pictures, Wilson crafted 10 books, none approaching those early heights. II falls into that category, but is, nonetheless, a must read for Wilson fans and a fitting way to wrap-up the loose ends from Suit.
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