There are several entwined subplots in The Tenement of Dreams, which fall into two main groups: the first being those which revolve around the residents of an apartment in lower Manhattan–the tenement of the title–and the others around the residents of a mansion in Gramercy Park.
Subplot A involves a tenement and the residents therein: Christopher Bole is a young impoverished composer, trying to support himself with a part-time job as a piano player for one of the local nickelodeons1. He dreams only of becoming a Great Recognized Composer of Operas, up there with Puccini and Verdi, Rossini or Mussorgsky…with slight diversions into his largely unrequited passion for the wife of his upstairs neighbor, Rhoda, a deaf-mute who (politely) hasn’t quite grasped the monogamous nature of marriage.
Subplot B involves the wealthy financier, Josiah Bantling, now retired from the world of business as a result of his blindness and his paranoia about his elder sister’s machinations against him. Years earlier, she was done out of her fair share of their father’s estate as a result of her gender, despite her talents equal to that of her brother. He remained in the world of business, while she retreated, in a manner of speaking, into her rounds as a slum landlady.
The two subplot groups become entwined even in the first page of the novel when Josiah’s carriage bowls over Christopher, as he ambles through the twilit streets dreaming of fame, beauteous music and the charms of Rhoda. Josiah takes the young man into his carriage to give him a ride home, and offers the suggestion of talking to his business manager. While Josiah surrounds himself with music in the form of player pianos and music boxes to keep fear of his sister at bay, he hasn’t much of a sense of modern performed music. The two men and the two plots become further entangled when it is revealed that Jessica has not been around to collect rent for four months. Needless to say, the tenants of her tenements are not going out of their way to find their landlady, a nasty uncaring one at best, but Josiah feels compelled to at least make an effort to track her down. Not for any love of his flesh and blood, but more to reassure himself that the threat presented him by his sister is well and truly gone.
Jessica Bantling reminds me in no small degree of Hetty Green, a woman before her time by several generations in terms of using her financial acumen to acquire wealth, though not an entirely nice person otherwise. The fictional and the real characters are different in many important respects, though: the fictional was a spinster while the real was a married women (later a widow); the fictional largely a landlord while the real an investor in financial concerns, such as stocks, bonds and banking concerns.
The Tenement of Dreams reminds me more than slightly of Prairie Avenue although they’re set in cities some 1,500 miles apart; they’re both written in 1949 but set some 35 years earlier, when the authors were themselves children–I can well imagine that the period of their childhood holds as much nostalgia for the authors as that of the readers holds for them. While I have no little sympathy for readers in agreement with the Kirkus reviewer below–he’s right about Meagher cramming the book with eccentrics at the expense of plot or character development–ruefully, I have to appreciate a novelist who does not provide a happy ending for all, or even the majority, of his characters. Basically, only Josiah Bantling finishes the book better than he began. Falconer is out a client. John Paul is dead, as is Jessica Bantling. The tenement has collapsed, as a result of age and lack of maintenance, and Rhoda is gone, both physically and emotionally, from Christopher. Christopher has had his dreams shattered about his feet by a sympathetic though ruthless judge of submitted operas, who tells him to forgo his dream of fame through composition now as a young man rather than struggle through decades of hope only to be dashed as a middle-aged man, a heartbreak no matter how much pain it saves him in the future.
Even at the time, apparently, it wasn’t regarded as a particularly brilliant book for the ages; I would however recommend it for anyone interested in historical novels set in the United States’ major cities. It did at least engage me enough to finish it, which is not something I can say about many books.
1for those not into early cinematography: all the films would have been silent, and thus needed mood-setting soundtracks provided by the theater rather than by the film company