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Isabel Bolton: Do I Wake or Sleep

Bolton has been called an American Virginia Woolf and, in some senses she is, portraying New York not with a straightforward plot à la Edith Wharton but, rather, in an impressionistic style. This novel is a case in point as most of it (barring flashback introduction) takes place in one day. As with Woolf, the past is important for Bolton – she was after all sixty-three when this, her first novel, was published. But it is important to stress that Bolton is not Virginia Woolf. Her novels may be lighter but what they lack in seriousness, they fully make up for in the impressionistic style at which Bolton is an artist.

This novel is the story of Bridget St Dennis and Millicent Munroe. Bridget has grown up in Europe, has twice been married (firstly to a diplomat, when she was seventeen, who was her grandmother’s (recently) ex-lover and then to the dashing but inherently unfaithful René.) She is now in New York but her daughter, Beatrice, has been left behind in Vienna with her grandmother. As this is 1938, this a cause for concern for Bridget’s friend, the novelist, Percy Jones but not for Bridget herself. We get a glimpse of Millicent’s past, in particular her brief dalliance with the British novelist, Christopher Henderson. All of this sets the scene for their day together – Percy takes Millicent and Bridget to an exclusive restaurant and they all meet up at a cocktail party later that day in which Percy gets hit in the face for behaving in an ungentlemanly manner. Not a great deal else happens but what makes this novel a joy to read is that Bolton manages to make the whole novel like a painting, flashing images of the thoughts of the characters and their journey through New York before us and build up the action, not through plot or conventional realism but with these images.

Publishing history

First published 1946 by Charles Scribner’s Sons