In this novella, Cather examines the character of Myra Henshawe, a New York socialite over a period of a couple of decades and the arc of Myra’s life is not a happy one for anyone involved. In some sense, you might call this book a study of bitterness, its development, growth & ultimate flowering. Cather’s books are often tragic and even more often than that sorrowful, but My Mortal Enemy is ultimately really troubling to me. I can certainly say that it’s the least enjoyable of the fifteen books by Cather that I’ve read, even less enjoyable than her early poetry. Her early poetry was dull and uninspired, but it had none of the curdled unpleasantness of this book. I think it’s purposeful, most likely, on Cather’s part to make this story as dark and grim as it is. She seems determined to push her lens deeper into the darkness of frustrated humanity, but it simply doesn’t work. One of Cather’s great strengths as a writer is her ability to create empathy for the sadness that others feel; she brings her characters, when working at her best, to life as real, complicated human beings and this grace elevates even characters that are openly unsympathetic. But the characters here, particularly Myra and her longsuffering husband Oswald, are cartoonishly drawn and they’re treated with no nuance or grace. Cather’s books were often sad, but this one feels mean-spirited, as if even Cather ultimately, can’t stand Myra’s unstoppable selfishness and bitterness. Cather’s characters are always struggling with a riot of emotions and they’re often small-minded and sometimes petty, but I can’t recall a single character in any of her other books that comes across as genuinely hateful, but Myra does. Myra is a mean, unpleasant, needlessly cruel character and she’s given no leavening or humanity, which ultimately makes this book a real slog to read. It’s strange that this book comes between Cather’s two best (in my opinion), The Professor’s House & Death Comes for the Archbishop. Those books just glow with the warmth of human love, the love that sustains the characters even through the worst of times, and the genuine love and care Cather seems to take with the characters. I’m honestly not sure what to make of this book. Well, regardless of what might have caused this change, it remains a blip on the radar, a surprisingly unpleasant and unsatisfying one-off that shows us that Cather’s ability wanes when she tries to be truly hateful and that’s hardly a bad thing. 1 star.
tl;dr – character study is uncharacteristically mean-spirited, bitter and unpleasant to read; with none of Cather’s usual humanity & empathy, this is a weird, unfortunate one-off in her bibliography. 1 star.