East Side Story, the 60th novel by Louis Auchincloss—a master of crystalline operations and onerous messages—is a rowdy opera that behaves like poised chamber music. It chronicles a New York family descended from David Carnochan, a stern Scotsman who in the early 19th century “braved,” in the words of his great-granddaughter Estelle, “the Atlantic waves to establish a branch of [his] thread business on the shores of a new world.” Ill and bed-ridden during the 1920s, Estelle writes to the Boston lawyer she earlier had hoped to marry; they conduct a nuanced correspondence about the ways of Massachusetts honor and Manhattan money. At one point Estelle, in her lacy way, pontificates a little. “Do you know what I think is the secret of the ‘moral’ success of such American so-called upper-class families as the Carnochans, and even the sacred Hales of Boston?” she asks. “It’s that they never for a moment admit, either to themselves or to anyone else, that they are not the ‘nicest’ people on the globe. They shy away from the brutal candor of their British opposite numbers, who scorn to hide their open snobbery, and they deplore the French and German aristocrats, who actually glory in it.”
Auchincloss neither parades his candor nor luxuriates in exclusivity; his is a far subtler, more objective technique. “The rich life,” one of his Carnochans says, “can become addictive.” As a lifelong member of the social strata he dissects, Auchincloss hardly might pretend otherwise. “Half the unhappiness in the world comes from people trying to be someone else,” he has an almost ostentatiously whip-smart non-Carnochan decree. The novel—formed from a dozen brief, sometimes interlocking narratives centered on 11 different Carnochans throughout the centuries—views the Upper East Side from the Park Avenue “puff and glitter” of the 1890s to the Shetland-sweatered liberal politics of the 1970s. Religions and wars and party invitations change; the wood paneling remains. East Side Story is a classic family saga, but in Auchincloss’s hands it never sprawls.