Daisy Buchanan's Daughter

  • Tom Carson
  • Paycock Press
  • 628 pp.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy hoped for a beautiful, foolish daughter, but Pamela is a savvy, worldly woman, and not particularly beautiful.

Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark

Salty, peppery, smart old ladies make great conversational companions, and Pamela Buchanan, Daisy Buchanan’s witty and fearlessly intelligent daughter, makes an endlessly entertaining narrator of her own story. It may seem odd that Daisy Buchanan, the love interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and possibly the most vapid character in all of American fiction, and her polo-playing husband Tom, usually described as “stolid,” had such a lively daughter. Nonetheless, Pam has lived an eventful life when we meet her on her 86th birthday: Paris and New York City in the late 1920s and 1930s, the European Theater of Operations in World War II, Hollywood in the 1950s, a diplomatic post in Africa in the early 1960s, and in Washington, DC, after that. She tells it all with fierce honesty and acrobatic verbal flair.

Readers who enjoyed Tom Carson’s Gilligan’s Wake will likely enjoy this novel too; fans of that novel, narrated by the seven main characters of the TV show Gilligan’s Island, may even remember that millionaire Thurston Howell’s wife was friends with Daisy Buchanan, who tried to interest her in morphine and a lesbian relationship. Daisy’s interests are the same in Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter, and her life after Gatsby is what would be expected from someone who had more money than brains and no discernible moral center. Despite Daisy’s failings, one strength of this novel is the surprising tenderness with which the narrator treats her. Other relationships are also portrayed movingly, notably that between Pamela and Hungarian poet Nachum Ungar, whom she meets when she is a correspondent covering the liberation of Dachau. The relationship between Pamela and her third husband, career diplomat “Hopsie” Cadwaller, is also one of deep affection and tremendous respect, and gives humanity to a novel that might otherwise be page after page of linguistic dazzle.

Pamela Buchanan Murphy Gerson Cadwaller is not a thinly disguised version of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, who married some of the 20th century’s most prominent men and had affairs with many others. The fictional Pamela does bed some characters that are fictionalized versions of some of Ms. Harriman’s alleged bedfellows. Some historical characters are given pseudonyms, but some are not: Lyndon Johnson is called by his real name, and Daisy’s daughter describes a quick and hilarious tryst with him in his Congressional office. She shares gossipy tidbits — maybe real, maybe not — about such things as Richard Nixon’s conversations with White House portraits and Humphrey Bogart’s bad false teeth.

The great strength of Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter is that it is packed with wit and wordplay: those who slavishly follow the President of the United States are described as “Potus Eaters,” men are described as “cuke-encumbered”, and when Pam’s right hand hurts, she says, “I used my sinister.” Every page has something: a reference to the State Department as “an aircraft carrier for paper planes,” or the elderly Pamela referring to her index finger as Rheuma One. Eugene McCarthy is described as an “eremite Mighty Mouse,” and a friend tells Pamela that if she loses her glasses, she’ll be as lost as a mole at the Ice Capades. There’s even fun in direct translation from a conversation in French at Pamela’s Paris school: “As is habitual, me, I remain here. . .But shut your shirt, finally, Gigi! I don’t want to look at your tangerines, finally!”

Who is likely to enjoy this book? A reader who loves wordplay, who knows The Great Gatsby well enough to be amused when Nick Carraway finds religion in later life, who knows enough 20th century American history to know instantly that a play that opened on December 5, 1941, was doomed to be overtaken by events, and who knows that Clio was the muse of history, will enjoy this book more than someone who doesn’t. Pamela herself makes it clear what level of knowledge is required: in explaining the reaction of left-leaning New York intellectuals to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, she explains briefly the significance of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and identifies a Trotskyite faction crushed by Stalin — then says, “If you don’t know what the Red Army was, screw this.”

Would it make a good beach read? Only for someone who can spend a month at the beach; the book is 628 pages long, and it requires full attention for full enjoyment. Readers who demand spare sentences and a fast-moving, spine-tingling plot are unlikely to enjoy Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter. An obituary added at the end of the book puts an unexpected and probably unnecessary twist on the entire narrative. The humor is complex, bawdy, profane and sometimes of terebinthic pungency. In The Great Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan expressed the hope that her daughter would be a beautiful fool. Pam is not beautiful, and is clearly no fool. For the reader who would enjoy a tour of the 20th century narrated by a sharp and curmudgeonly old lady, Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter is a treat.

Susan Storer Clark is a former broadcast journalist and civil servant. She has completed her first novel, Scandal’s Child, a historical novel in which the central character is the fictionalized daughter of a real person. Ms. Clark is an active singer, and has been a member of the Holey Road Readers for more than 10 years. She and her husband Rich have two children, and they live in Silver Spring.

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