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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Hope of Heaven

John O'Hara

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

To purchase Hope of Heaven

Title: Hope of Heaven
Author: John O'Hara
Genre: Novel
Written: 1938
Length: 119 pages
Availability: Hope of Heaven - US
in Four Novels of the 1930s - US
Hope of Heaven - UK
Hope of Heaven - Canada
Une lueur de paradis - France

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Our Assessment:

B : a bit all over the place, but ultimately quite satisfying

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 1/6/2006 Bruno Corty
The NY Times Book Rev. . 27/3/1938 Louis Kronenberger
Sunday Times . 14/3/1954 J.B.Priestley
Time . 21/3/1938 .
The Times . 17/2/1939 J.S.
TLS . 11/2/1939 Geoffrey West

  From the Reviews:
  • "Voilà, tout O'Hara est là : une histoire simple, des dialogues fluides, une atmosphère étrange, prenante, entre roman d'amour et roman noir. Eric Neuhoff n'a pas écrit de préface mais sa soeur Anouk s'est chargée de revoir une traduction pas toujours fidèle. Le résultat nous comble. (...) Lisez O'Hara. Et offrez-le à vos amis !" - Bruno Corty, Le Figaro

  • "(A) short novel, with a Hollywood setting that for once is not silly. (...) Mr. O'Hara has a fine talent, real professional skill; his ear for dialogue is superb" - J.B.Priestley, Sunday Times

  • "(A)n exceedingly intelligent account of a Los Angeles household to which the father returns when his children have made their own way and feel they owe him nothing." - J.S., The Times

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:

       Hope of Heaven is narrated by James Malloy, a successful writer currently mostly plying his trade in 1930s Hollywood, enough of a celebrity in his own right that he knows that even if he shows up unannounced with a group at the Trocadero on a Saturday night they'll have a prime table for him. He doesn't worry about money, or where his next paycheck will come from; the end of his story finds him returning to California after a play of his was produced in New York, an "inconspicuous success" that he was nevertheless able to sell to a studio for $60,000 (which, adjusted for inflation, is an absurdly staggering amount of money -- in the million dollar range in 2020 terms).
       [O'Hara used the figure of Malloy -- as a stand-in of sorts of himself -- in numerous works; he appears as a not yet very successful young beat reporter in BUtterfield 8 as well as, apparently, in twelve of O'Hara's stories and four novellas.]
       Malloy was married, but it didn't work out, and in Hope of Heaven his main squeeze is young -- barely in her twenties -- Peggy Henderson, who works in a bookstore. It's been an ongoing thing, but:

Sometimes I'm in love with her, and sometimes she was in love with me; but never at the same time, as the saying goes.
       When the novel opens: "neither of us was in love with the other", with Peggy often seeing the more age-appropriate and quite devoted Herbert, a safer kind of boyfriend (though also limited in what he can offer -- presumably part of what appeals to Peggy about him).
       Peggy is an independent young woman, leaning, politically, strongly left -- a point O'Hara emphasizes, even though for a 1938 novel Hope of Heaven is otherwise surprisingly unconcerned about the (geo)political situation of its times; there is an Oswald Mosley-mention slipped in, but that's about as far as it goes. Instead, Hope of Heaven is very closely personal, a small tale of overlapping lives and fates -- a chamber play, practically.
       Peggy lives with her brother Keith, a college student; their father, Philip, has been absent for most of their lives, but does occasionally send money; he appears to travel a lot. Then, suddenly, Philip Henderson shows up -- one of two outsiders that upset whatever odd balance Malloy and Peggy and her brother and her small circle of friends have been in. In part, it's because the father is an awkward fit, even just beyond the complicated history he shares with his children; Keith, for one, does his best to keep his distance when dad settles in (though it will turn out that that wasn't good enough ...).
       Old man Henderson isn't the first near-stranger to show up in the story, however: the novel begins with a Don Miller getting in touch with Malloy, introducing himself as a friend of Malloy's brother, and from practically the same hometown (Malloy is from O'Hara-favorite Gibbsville, Pennsylvania; Miller from next-door Swedish Haven). Miller is a no-show for the meeting they set, but then runs into Malloy at a restaurant and introduces himself. It takes a while for him to unburden himself, however; that only happens a bit later.
       Basically, Miller's burden is that he's made off with $5000 that isn't his; that doesn't sound like a huge amount nowadays, but, again, we're talking 1938 valuations, and it's more than a pretty penny. So Miller is on the run. And Miller is worried someone is, if not entirely onto him, getting close. (Miller is also not actually Don Miller, but that's pretty incidental.) Malloy is reasonably helpful, giving him some advice and the fair warning when he thinks it's really time for Miller to make a run for it, but he doesn't get too involved.
       Just about the time Malloy learns what's worrying Miller -- cue entrance Philip Henderson. Which may not be a coïncidence. No one knows exactly what Henderson does, but Malloy has some ideas -- and they include the notion that Henderson may be the one tracking down Miller.
       It feels a bit contrived, and Miller feels like a sort of pop-up figure in the story, employed to spice things up in a certain way -- though arguably it's more of a narrative feint, as the meat (and heart) of O'Hara's story lies elsewhere. But the two slightly dubious outsiders certainly contribute to the background-feel in the story that O'Hara develops (if perhaps not fully enough), variations on a type that Malloy is intrigued by (of Miller, he says: "yet to me this kid was a sort of celebrity, the way anyone is who is wanted by the law"), even if he really doesn't want to have that much to do with either. He even suggests:
     In some respects Philip Henderson was an older Don Miller. Another way of putting it would be to say Philip Henderson was what Don Miller might easily turn out to be if he continued his career.
       Henderson tries to ingratiate himself with his children, but Keith isn't having any of that; Penny goes along with it to a certain extent but also maintains a slightly wary distance. Malloy hovers, watching and playing his part, but remaining suspicious. It's someone he asks to have a look at Henderson, to see whether their paths have ever crossed before, who pegs him most succinctly: he's unsure he's ever seen him before, but, after a quick in-person encounter:
This much I will say. If I ever saw a wronggo, that Henderson is it.
       Henderson's presence remains an issue as Peggy and Malloy finally seem to get their timing right and get closer. They would seem to have a future. Sure, Malloy keeps up the Hollywood cynicism -- jokingly suggesting: "In about twenty years we'll wake up some day and realize it was only sex" -- but he's ready and eager to settle down with her, and she's proving more amenable.
       Of course, things go south, domestic tragedy upending life and plans. The intruding characters disappear from the scene, but they've left their mark and there's no getting over it; if O'Hara's build-up is a story that is all over the place, his finale is a quick, simple gut punch, an inevitable collapse and end.
       There's a lot of quick dialogue in Hope of Heaven -- clipped speech straight out of the movies of the time -- but mostly it feels like the characters are trying too hard (and by extension, O'Hara, too). The novel is also oddly dated in its awkward efforts in handling sex, O'Hara floundering somewhere between candid and the (would-be) risqué ("I want to tell you the rest of it, and I need some sex too", Peggy tells Malloy over lunch at the Brown Derby). But it's not the full-on cynicism of so many Hollywood novels -- and it is a Hollywood novel, with (incidental) star-sightings and name-dropping galore, and the occasional handshake --, with Malloy, however much he is successfully a part of the industry, not overly caught up in it: we hardly learn anything about his work beyond which studio he's currently under contract with, much less see him actually at work. If Malloy does play a kind of role, especially in his encounters with strangers -- whether how he presents himself to Miller (even though they share a bit of a history) to the nightclubs and restaurants he visits -- O'Hara does manage things that eventually the raw honesty seeps through. (As is often the case, raw honesty proves dark and sad -- but here it's not so much a Hollywood-story but rather more of the everyman sort (with a few Hollywood trappings).)
       Hope of Heaven is a very short novel, and mostly feels like a short story -- arguably O'Hara's forte --, that's oddly padded with characters and scenes. It's not a tight novel; indeed, it long feels particularly baggy -- though at least quick-moving -- but O'Hara gets it together, after a fashion, in its conclusion. Technically, it's also somewhat awkward -- the conclusion includes a two-page letter, allowing O'Hara to briefly shift voice and perspective to another character -- but it packs enough of an emotional punch; if Hope of Heaven is long a somewhat baffling read, it closes off satisfyingly enough to rate as at least a modest success.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 November 2020

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Hope of Heaven: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author John O'Hara lived 1905 to 1970.

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© 2020 the complete review

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