Theophilus North (1973)

by Thornton Wilder

The last major work by Thornton Wilder published during his lifetime, Theophilus North is part autobiography and part the imagined memoirs of Wilder's identical twin brother who died at birth. Similar to Thornton, the  narrator is a Yale graduate who spends a summer in the 1920s in wealthy, glittery Newport, Rhode Island, where he had served in World War I. There he nurtures his writing career in a modest room at the YMCA.

In the book Theophilus supports himself as a tutor in tennis, languages, and whatnot. Each of the chapters relates an experience with another Newport citizen or family with a problem to which Theophilus is able to apply his ingenuity. A theme is the selfless instinct to help, but Theophilus also welcomes colorful escapades as material about which he can write in his journal.

It was those journal entries to which the narrator returned 50 years later, revising them from the perspective of maturity. The result is a book that has both the brashness of a young man and the wisdom of an old man. It is brimming with humor and wit, a deep respect for learning, and insight about what really matters in life.

If a novel requires a plot, Theophilus North maybe isn't a novel. If fiction should be mostly made up, Theophilus North perhaps isn't fiction. But regardless of how you label it, Theophilus North is a good read by one of America's finest 20th-century writers. 

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