Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Public Domain Books, n.d. (originally published 1919); 335 pages
Available as a free Kindle ebook.
I started Dangerous Days expecting it to be like other Rinehart novels I've read: a light, fluffy mystery with a bit of romance. Instead I got a commentary on modern society (modern as of 1919, although many of the points still apply today). The book is set just before the entry of America into World War I and focuses on the Spencer family. Clayton Spencer owns a munitions factory and makes good money shipping weapons to the Allies in Europe, while his wife Natalie spends the money almost as fast as he can earn it. Their adult son, Graham, has a job at the factory, but spends much of his time running with a "fast" set and flirting with his secretary. On the outside, the Spencers have a perfect life, but inside they are falling apart as individuals and as a family. Clayton is married to his work and neglects his wife and son. Natalie is shallow and immature and keeps her son tied fast to the figurative apron strings. Graham does not care for hard work and just wants to play and pursue pretty women.
Everything changes when America enters World War I. Graham wants to join the army and fight, but his mother exacts a promise that he will never go to war, because she is terrified that she would lose him forever--either through death or because he would become an independent man who no longer relies on his mother. Clayton, on the other hand, wants Graham to join the army because he sees how Natalie has infantilized their son and he wants Graham to get away from his mother's influence and from a romance with a woman of weak character. In response to the stresses on their marriage, Clayton pursues a widowed friend, while Natalie takes up with her interior designer. In the end, Graham goes to war, marries a good woman, and becomes a mature adult, while one of his parents tries to heal their broken marriage and the other does not.
Dangerous Days is a wonderful, amazing book. Rinehart documents in great detail the slow destruction of a marriage and the results of poor parenting on a child. She emphasizes that honor, virtue, and love are important in every facet of life and that in relationships there is no room for selfishness. The entire book is simply beautiful in the explication of what love looks like and how loving people should behave. The history depicted in the book is also fascinating, particularly since Rinehart wrote the book just two years after the period in which it is set.