And Then I Read: ERNESTINE TAKES OVER by Walter Brooks

Ernestine

Walter R. Brooks is best known for a lengthy series of humorous talking animal novels written for young readers, most featuring Freddy the Pig and the Bean Farm. Less known is a series of short stories he wrote about a talking horse that was the inspiration for the “Mr. Ed” TV show. I particularly love the Freddy books, and I’ve always been curious about this one adult novel he wrote, so I recently bought a copy.

At first it seemed an amusing comic novel with a fantasy element, the sort of thing that Thorne Smith made a career of, and not too far from Brooks’ other work. Fred Thompson is an advertising executive working for his father-in-law in Manhattan, while at home he and his wife go to a lot of parties where drinking, smoking and sophomoric pranks are the common activity. His crowd obviously has some money, and are pretty spoiled, but none so obviously as Fred’s wife Ethel, who treats her husband with sarcasm and disdain and seems to find him a big disappointment. Fred is equally disappointed in how things have turned out, and puts his large imagination to work creating an imaginary woman that would be the perfect party date for him. Soon he can actually see this woman, who he names Ernestine. They carry on conversations and begin to have some adventures together at parties. Before long, she is quite real to Fred and other people at the parties begin to see her, and talk to her as well. Ernestine keeps getting more real and more independent, and Fred finds it harder and harder to control her with his own mind, as she seems to be equally open to the (usually naughty) thoughts of others.

Fred’s wife Ethel does not take well to this, and when Ernestine shows up one morning in Fred’s bathroom while he’s shaving, Ethel leaves him. The rest of the book is Fred’s struggle to control Ernestine, through increasingly harsh and even physical means, and to get his wife back. Brooks posits Fred as a mild and pliant fellow who needs to learn to “handle” women, and Ernestine is his training ground. When he eventually begins to treat his wife the same way, she seems to find new interest in him, leading to more adventures and hijinks and eventual reconciliation.

I found the book disappointing, and I can see why it hasn’t been reprinted. Brooks’ humor in the Freddy books is much more appealing, and I found his ideas about adult relationships expressed here to be unfunny at best and appalling at worst.

Not recommended.

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