The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

I had never read anything by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, so when I saw that she was the next author in Jane’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity. Ideally I would have started with her most popular book, The Home-Maker, but as I didn’t have a copy of that one, it made sense to read the one I did have instead.

The Brimming Cup opens with a prologue set in Italy in 1909 in which we briefly meet Neale and Marise, a young couple who are very much in love and making plans for the future. Marise has a very clear idea of what she wants and expects from their relationship:

“But what would poison us to death…what I’m afraid of, between two people who try to be what we want to be to each other…how can I say it?” She looked at him in an anguish of endeavor, “…not to be true to what is deepest and most living in us…that would be the betrayal I’m afraid of. That’s what I mean. No matter what it costs us personally, or what it brings, we must be true to that. We must!”

Eleven years later, Marise and Neale are married and living in Vermont. It’s 1920 and Marise has just sent their youngest child, Mark, off to school for the first time. Where once she had three children at home all day, now she has none and, with Neale so busy running the family business, Marise’s role as wife and mother is no longer the same as it used to be.

When Mr Welles, a retired office worker, moves in next door accompanied by his younger friend, Vincent Marsh, Marise begins to feel even more unsettled. Vincent makes her think differently about her life and about her relationships with her husband and children. Do the children appreciate everything she has done for them? Do they even truly love her or would they feel the same about any adult who raised them? Is her life being wasted in this quiet little town in Vermont? Forced to question all the things in which she has ever believed, Marise remembers the vow she made in Rome – that she and Neale should each be true to themselves no matter what.

I found it interesting to see how this novel, published in 1919, explores some of the attitudes, views and theories of the time surrounding issues such as childcare, parenthood, identity and marriage. As newcomers to the town, Mr Welles and Vincent Marsh introduce Marise to different ideas and opinions. Vincent’s suggestions that Marise should be making more of her talent as a pianist and break away from the role she has fallen into in the home seem very tempting – especially as she is starting to wonder whether Neale is really the man she thought he was – while Mr Welles’ interest in helping his cousin in Georgia to fight prejudice against black people also gives her something to think about.

I found a lot to appreciate and enjoy in this novel, but I can’t say that I loved the book as a whole and I’m not sure yet whether Dorothy Canfield Fisher is really an author for me. There were times when some of the writing felt a bit too sentimental for my taste and there were some plot developments towards the end, involving another family, the Powers, which felt unnecessarily melodramatic and out of balance with the rest of the story. I will probably try at least one more of her books, though, because it could just be that this one wasn’t the best of introductions for me. I’m tempted by Rough-Hewn, which was published after The Brimming Cup and seems to be a prequel, but maybe I should read The Home-Maker instead to see why so many people love it so much.

21 thoughts on “The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

  1. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock says:

    I’m interested to read this book, but it does sound a little contrived when I compare it with the prequel that I’ve just read. I can understand why DCF won’t be a favourite for you, but I’m pleased that you found things to appreciate in her writing. And I think you might like ‘The Home-Maker’ rather more if you get the chance to read it.

    • Helen says:

      Rough-Hewn sounds as though it is probably the stronger book of the two, so maybe I should have tried to read that one first. I’m sure I’ll read more by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, though – I’m hoping that it was just the wrong choice of book and that I’ll have more success with another one.

  2. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    Besides Understood Betsy, I’ve only read Canfield Fisher’s The Home-Maker. I said in my review a few years ago, “The Home Maker is not great literature — it’s sometimes too pedestrian, sometimes too melodramatic or polemical, and the prose style can’t quite lift it above either failing.” But and I do think it’s a very fascinating and worthwhile read, and a pity such an original thinker didn’t find the artistic tools to create truly lasting works of fiction. I’d like to try some of her others anyway.

    • Helen says:

      I wish I had found a copy of The Home-Maker instead of reading this one. I’m pleased to hear you thought it was a worthwhile read, even if you had some reservations about it.

  3. Sandra says:

    I’ve read your review hard on the heels of reading Jane’s, Helen, so now I have an appreciation of both books about Neale and Marise. Notwithstanding your observations of the book’s flaws and weaknesses, I think I would enjoy the pair of books. The subject matter is certainly to my taste. I’d have the dilemma that Jane had though – which to read first!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think you might enjoy reading about Neale and Marise. I thought this would be the right place to start as this is the book that was written first, but having read Jane’s review I think Rough-Hewn might be a better choice. It’s certainly a dilemma!

  4. heavenali says:

    I read and enjoyed The Home maker some years ago, and had intended to read The Brimming Cup this month but haven’t managed it and probably won’t. However I am reminded I must read more of her work.

    • Helen says:

      I’m looking forward to reading The Home-Maker. Sorry you haven’t had time for The Brimming Cup this month – I hope you like it if and when you do read it.

  5. Lisa says:

    This was not my favorite of her books, though like you I found things to appreciate and enjoy. I did read Rough-Hewn first, without even realizing there was an earlier book. I was very excited to read it, to see where their marriage took them, but I ended up preferring the earlier story (but later book – so confusing!)

    • Helen says:

      As you’ve read so many of her books, knowing that this wasn’t one of your favourites makes me think this was the wrong choice for my first introduction to Dorothy Canfield Fisher. It sounds as though Rough-Hewn is a better book, so I would still like to try it.

  6. Susan Kavanagh says:

    I found this book slow going and have not finished it yet. However, it was just the opposite with Her Son’s Wife. A very gripping book. I would recommend it.

  7. Silvia says:

    I adore her Understood Betsy, and The Homemaker was a bit of a disappointment to me. I appreciate what it brings to the table, the questions, the social and cultural message, but it is not greatly executed, it seems to exist to prove her point.

  8. Judy Krueger says:

    Understood Betsy was one of my favorite books as a child. I reread it a few years ago, saw the sentimentality in it, but still fell under its spell. Until I read your review here, I did not even know she had written so many adult fiction books. It does sound like she was ahead of her time in terms of her views of family, marriage, motherhood, etc. I have not read much fiction from before 1940 so can’t judge, but I suspect that her style was common for the times.

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t read Understood Betsy as a child so I’m hoping it’s not too late! It’s good to know that you enjoyed your reread as an adult. Although I didn’t love The Brimming Cup, I did find the issues it explores very interesting to read about.

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