I first learned about Dawn Powell and her novel A Time To Be Born almost by accident. I was reading an introduction to Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, and the introduction’s author talked up Elaine Dundy, but saved her best words for Dundy’s American contemporary, the underrated Dawn Powell. The introduction didn’t make me all that excited to read Avocado (I think the author might have brought up chick-lit and maybe even Sex and the City, which is a pretty good way to scare me away from something). I read a chapter or two, couldn’t get into it, kept having the whole thing play out in my head like a bad ’50s romantic comedy. So I gave up on it and went to the kindle store and bought A Time To Be Born.
Much, much better. There’s the time period, for one thing: the early ’40s and the early days of WWII. “It was no time to worry about Vicky Haven or indeed any other young lady crossed in love,” writes Powell in the first paragraph, but that’s exactly what she goes on to do. Of course it’s not really a love story. It’s more of a satire about life in New York during the early part of the war, when “the ominous smell of gunpowder was matched by a rising cloud of Schiaparelli’s Shocking.”