PERSONAL: Born in Providence, RI.
CAREER: Writer. New York Times, New York, NY, chief television critic. Has also worked as a New York Times film critic and cultural reporter, and as an editor for the New York Times Book Review.
Glorie, Zoland Books (Cambridge, MA), 1998.
What Caroline Knew, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times, TV Guide, and Vogue.
SIDELIGHTS: Caryn James is the chief television critic for the New York Times. She has published two novels: Glorie and What Caroline Knew.
Set in an unnamed New England town, Glorie is the story of Gloria Carcieri, an octagenerian whose beloved husband of fifty years, Jack, has been dead for seven years. Glorie now lives alone in the house she shared with Jack, across the street from her vigilant daughter, Louisa, and Louisa's husband Patrick, a bland accountant whom Louisa refers to as "Ivory Soap." Glorie has never warmed to Patrick, or even to her own granddaughter, Blanche, whom she finds pretentious, yet Glorie finds herself sleeping at their house every night.
At the heart of the novel is Glorie's struggle to retain the home she shared with Jack. Several of Patrick's aunts live in a high-rise nursing home in town, and Patrick, along with Louisa, thinks that a similar arrangement would be best for Glorie. Glorie resists their efforts as best she can, going so far as to steal the deed to her house from Patrick's home office files, and later giving the new owner of the house the "Evil Eye." Glorie is a complex woman, by turns defiant and despairing. Her advanced age brings her new worries, such as whether she is going senile. After checking for symptoms of senility, Glorie comforts herself by noting that she is "still sane enough to look for them."
As the novel progresses, Glorie dyes her hair to its original red and fantasizes about scolding the young doctor who seems to ignore Glorie's presence as he tells Louisa that Glorie is "fine for a woman her age." While Glorie wrestles with age and the loss of her home, she is consumed by the spirit of her departed husband. She talks with Jack, who calms her fears. As James wrote in the novel: "She would not think time had ended for him. There was a version of her husband that could follow her anywhere."
Many critics found that James successfully made the transition from columnist to novelist. Hilma Wolitzer, writing in the New York Times called Glorie "an especially stirring and charming novel." Richard Burgin, also in the New York Times, wrote that James takes risks and writes "convincingly" about a "flawed but mostly sympathetic heroine" and "a number of other elderly characters." According to a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, Glorie's story "is a testament to the courage and will of many women of an earlier era who were raised to be wives and mothers unprepared for lives without their husbands."
In her second novel, What Caroline Knew, James tells the story of the aristocratic, Jazz Age woman Caroline Stephens. The novel focuses on Caroline's support of painter Nick Leone and his ultimate betrayal of her when he presents a pornographic painting of Stephens at an exhibition in 1927. Although told by Stephens, the story is filtered through Stephens's grand-nephew, who recounts his relative's story when the painting is shown at a new 2002 exhibit in New York. While Leone initially appears to be the primary miscreant, readers soon learn of Stephens's own culpability as her wealthy family seeks revenge on the painter. Whitney Scott, writing in Booklist, commented: "Is anything more delicious than a high-society scandal engagingly presented?"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
James, Caryn, Glorie, Zoland Books (Cambridge, MA), 1998.
American Spectator, September, 1993, pp. 70-71.
Booklist, February 15, 2006, Whitney Scott, review of What Caroline Knew, p. 44.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2006, review of What Caroline Knew, p. 102.
Library Journal, April 15, 1998, pp. 112-113.
New York Times, May 14, 1998, Hilma Wolitzer, review of Glorie; May 17, 1998, Richard Burgin, review of Glorie, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, January 12, 1998, pp. 32-38; December 12, 2005, review of What Caroline Knew, p. 38.