REVIEW: The Custard Heart

Number four in the Penguin Modern Classics boxed set is this gem – The Custard Heart by Dorothy Parker.

I love the sharp, sardonic wit of Dorothy Parker and this small book contains three short stories – The Custard Heart, You Were Perfectly Fine and perhaps her most famous short story The Big Blonde.

The Custard Heart features Mrs Lanier, a well-to-do woman who spends her days feeling wistful and horrified by the atrocities of the world outside her luxurious doors.

She entertains groups of young men until one becomes a favourite then she entertains him alone until he becomes besotted and pushes him away and starts again. It’s an expertly drawn portrait of a high society woman who has absolutely nothing to do.

The final story You Were Perfectly Fine is a very amusing (and very short) story about a man and his female friend who are discussing a dinner they attended the previous evening where the man was so drunk he can’t remember what happened and how he behaved. It’s a great yarn.

But the most famous story in this book is The Big Blonde, which is a sad reflection on the role of women in the 1920s – it was published in 1929.

Hazel Morse was a wholesaler’s model, she spent her evenings being entertaining and entertained by men who thought her a ‘good sport’ but as she gets into her thirties she decides to settle down and marry Herbert and live life in perfect domesticity. Herbert, however, has other ideas and his late night drinking leads to fighting and eventually he leaves her.

She bounces from married lover to married lover and sinks into a cycle of drinking and depression until she decides to take her own life.

The story speaks to a society which allowed only certain roles for women – wife, mother, mistress. Hazel starts out as a party girl but she can’t keep up that pretence for ever. With the long list of men she is seeking someone who understands her and treats her as a person not just a toy and when she doesn’t find it, depression sucks her downwards.

It’s a sad tale, expertly observed and an extremely good read.

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