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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



James M. Cain

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Serenade

Title: Serenade
Author: James M. Cain
Genre: Novel
Written: 1937
Length: 196 pages
Availability: in Three by Cain - US
Serenade - UK
in Three by Cain - UK
in Three by Cain - Canada
in Three by Cain - India
Sérénade - France
Serenade in Mexico - Deutschland
Serenata - Italia
  • Serenade was also made into a movie, in 1956. Directed by Anthony Mann it starred Mario Lanza, Joan Fontaine, and Vincent Price.

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Our Assessment:

B : often gripping, but too many extremes -- and ultimately not quite daring enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 15/7/2011 Joanna Hines
The New Republic . 8/12/1937 Dawn Powell
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/12/1937 J.D.Adams
The Spectator . 21/4/1938 Kate O'Brien
Time . 6/12/1937 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "From this mundane beginning the story builds to a stunning and complex climax. It's hard to believe this was first published in 1937; and how brilliant that a new generation has a chance to discover this compelling writer." - Joanna Hines, The Guardian

  • "Serenade has its weaknesses, but, once begun, it is not easily laid aside. (...) I don't think Mr. Cain's tensely strung narrative method is the best for a tale of substance (...) but if you read for excitement Serenade is built to your order." - J.D.Adams, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(J)ust a lively and meretricious piece of entertainment which you will read quickly -- and forget quickly. (...) However, this book is of a genre that people are liking nowadays and of its kind is up to standard." - Kate O'Brien, The Spectator

  • "It has its quota of close shaves, fights, flights and two-dimensional characters, suggests an old-fashioned pulp magazine thriller brought up to date by a writer who knows Freud as well as all tricks of suspense." - Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of Serenade, John Howard Sharp, has hit some highs and lows, and at the beginning of his account he's pretty near rock bottom. A former singing star -- of grand opera, no less -- he's down and out in Mexico when a local girl, Juana Montes, catches his eye. She's something of a challenge to get -- and when he gets her he's not sure it's a good idea: turn's out, as he finds out soon enough, "My lady love was a three-peso whore."
       The first night goes sour pretty fast, and he doesn't meet her again for a few months. She contacts him with a proposition: that he could be a "combination professor, bartender, bouncer, glad-hander, secretary, and general bookkeeper" at an establishment she wants to open in Acapulco. He at least says he's willing to go along with it, if only to get out of town and to the coast. They have some adventures along the way, and romance -- after a fashion -- buds in the unlikeliest of locales when they get stuck in church in a storm. John's way with the ladies -- or at least this lady -- leaves something to be desired but it gets the job done, and after that they're as tight as can be. Until they get to Acapulco, at least.
       The set-up in Acapulco isn't what Juana had imagined, but John decides then that he can't ditch her after all and they flee on the boat of a sympathetic captain. John just wants to get back to the States. He's optimistic now:

I was a singer, and my voice cracked up. Now it's coming back, see ? That means if I ever get out of this hellhole of a country, and get back where the money is, I can cash in.
       It ain't easy, but he does make it back, with Juana (illegally) in tow -- and he does cash in. His rise is close to meteoric -- a bit too easy, but still entertainingly described. Soon enough he's a Hollywood star with a three-picture contract. But New York and the opera world beckon again, and that's what he really wants to do.
       (Cain's jabs at Hollywood in particular are entertaining. His own experience there clearly scarred him; "Understand, for my money no picture is any good" he has John say, and he sure seems to mean it.)
       Threatening to break his Hollywood contract in order to pursue his dream looks like it might end his promising career, but then a figure from John's past resurfaces: Winston Hawes. Winston is tremendously wealthy: "He was rich, and there's something about rich people that's different from the rest of us." John knew him in Paris, where Winston hired him to sing with his Petite Orchestra. But there's more to it:
     That was the beginning of it, and it was quite a while before it dawned on me what he really wanted. As to what he wanted, and what he got, you'll find out soon enough, and I'm not going to tell any more than I have to. But I'd like to make this much clear now: it wasn't what I wanted.
       Back in the present Winston manages to smooth things over regarding the contractual dispute, allowing John to live the life he wants to live. Except, of course, that there's that something that Winston still wants ... and will do almost anything to get.
       Soon enough the issue is unavoidable, and Juana realises the ugly truth. John tries to explain himself, but it's hardly reassuring:
Every man has got five per cent of that in him, if he meets the one person that'll bring it out, and I did, that's all.
       But the ramifications go far beyond that, and Juana can't stand it. Soon enough they're on the run again, and almost everything comes full circle, all the way to the tragic (and melodramatic) end.

       Cain stuffs a lot of action into Serenade. It's an ill-starred romance between John and Juana from the beginning -- even the elements conspire against them -- but they keep on coming and running together until there's no escape.
       The breathless and constant turning and churning of events certainly hold the reader's interest -- it's a page-turner -- but the roller-coaster ride is just too wild and unrealistic. John's deep, dark, and very dirty secret is fairly well handled, but the book is overfull with adventures around it. Still: an entertaining read.

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Serenade: Reviews: Serenade - the film: James M. Cain: Other books by James Cain under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author James Mallahan Cain (1892-1977) was, among other things, managing editor of The New Yorker and a screenwriter. He published his first novel when he was forty-two, and achieved great success with several hard-boiled classics.

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