“Trio” by Dorothy Baker, An Unusual Love Triangle

“Trio” by Dorothy Baker (1943) – 234 pages

“It’s a simple formula; do your best and somebody might like it.”
Dorothy Baker

“Trio” is a novel about a love triangle but not the usual love triangle. This love triangle is not two men competing for one woman or two women vying for the same man. In “Trio”, Pauline Maury, the first woman full professor at her college, is in danger of losing her live-in young academic ward Janet Logan to young Ray Mackenzie who wants to marry Janet.

Before “Trio”, I had read two novels by Dorothy Baker, “Young Man With a Horn” and “Cassandra at the Wedding”, both of them excellent. “Young Man with a Horn”, Baker’s first novel written in 1938, is about a young jazz musician who is much like the real Bix Beiderbecke. “Young Man with a Horn” was an immediate bestseller and was later in 1950 turned into a movie starring Kirk Douglas. “Cassandra at the Wedding”, a late novel by Baker written in 1962, is a tragicomic story about a young woman trying to sabotage the wedding of her twin sister. It has recently been republished by NYRB Classics, enough said.

After reading these two superior novels, I’ve wanted to read another novel by Dorothy Baker for a long time. The only other Dorothy Baker novel available at the Minneapolis Public Library was “Trio”. “Trio” was Dorothy Baker’s second novel published in 1943. According to Wikipedia, “She and her husband made it (“Trio”) into a play which was quickly taken off Broadway because of its lesbian theme after a protest by a group of Protestant clergymen. At this time, Dorothy was reportedly beginning to show her own lesbian inclinations.”

Apparently Dorothy Baker and her husband thought well enough of “Trio” to turn the novel into a Broadway play. “Trio” was rejected for decidedly non-literary reasons. After finding all this out I absolutely had to read “Trio”. The only copy of “Trio” which the Minneapolis library had was the original which was published in 1943, so the physical book I read was almost 70 years old.

Besides being a ‘love triangle’ novel, “Trio” is also a California novel. Being a French professor, Pauline has many faculty and academic tea parties and cocktail parties at her modern designed apartment she shares with Janet. The novel is divided into three crisp scenes or chapters, the first of which takes place at one of Pauline’s tea parties.

Most of “Trio” is dialogue, although its sharp descriptions vividly crystalize and set the scenes well. I’m partial to novels that have strong dialogue because of the immediacy and the dramatic intensity it lends to the interaction between the characters, and Dorothy Baker writes spectacular dialogue which drives the story. I can well see why Baker and her husband turned this novel into a play.

As it turned out, “Trio” completely won me over.   All three of the main characters come across vividly and ultimately sympathetic.  The story was not at all out of date, and it would be easy to visualize the same situation occurring today.  The novel is as fine a read as Dorothy Baker’s other more famous two novels. It must have been devastating for Baker to have her most personal novel rejected on non-literary grounds, because she was serious about her fiction writing.

Dorothy Baker jokingly said that her own writing career “was severely hampered by an abject admiration for Ernest Hemingway”. I do see the qualities of Hemingway in Baker’s novels in that both writers do not waste a lot of verbiage getting into their stories, and that gives their stories an intensity they otherwise would not have.

Unfortunately “Trio” has not been republished since 1977, and only used copies are available, sometimes ar exorbitant prices. Large city or university libraries usually will have a copy of it. I’d like to see NYRB classics consider republishing “Trio”, the novel is that good. Dorothy Baker belongs up there with the great woman United States writers of that era including Dawn Powell, Carson McCullers, Mary McCarthy, Jean Shepherd, and Harper Lee.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Tony, you’re the only person I’ve ever met (besides me) who has read Trio. I love Dorothy Baker. Cassandra at the Wedding was published by Virago some years back, and with great difficulty I got a copy of Trio. Not my favorite, but she is such a good writer. I liked Young Man with a Horn, and Wikipedia says there’s one of her novels I’m missing. Maybe someday…

    I didn’t know NYBR had reissued Cassandra at the Wedding. Good for them!

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  2. Hi Frisbee,
    Maybe we can start a reclamation club, reclaiming authors whose fame has somewhat fallen by the wayside. I like Dorothy Baker’s simple unadorned style. She is a writer I’ve admired for a long time and now finding out that she’s been re-printed by NYRB Classics somewhat validates our opinion.
    Jean Shepherd is another whose entire works I’ve admired.
    You seem to be reclaiming Angela Huth which is slightly different because she could still write another novel.

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  3. Posted by ClassicsGirl on February 27, 2012 at 11:51 AM

    That’s a coincidence – I’ve just read Trio this morning. I quite enjoyed it but I didn’t think it was exceptional – it reminded of other university-set novels I’ve read, and I found it rather dated. However, the treatment of the lesbian theme was intriguing, and the characterisation of the manipulative Pauline was particularly convincing.

    I definitely think Baker’s writing improved immeasurably by the time she wrote Cassandra at the Wedding. That novel is so fresh and vivid – a real pleasure.

    I wasn’t struck on Young Man With a Horn, which I found kind of plodding. I’d be interested to know what others made of that novel?

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  4. Hi ClassicsGirl,
    You are not alone in viewing ‘Trio’ as unexceptional. So far I’ve encountered three others who have read ‘Trio’, and all have not liked it as much as I did. One objected to Pauline Maury being portrayed as somewhat of a villian. I thought the portrayal was ultimately empathetic. I don’t think that it is that farfetched or outdated for someone to float between the gay and straight worlds depending on circumstances.
    What I like about Baker’s writing is the clean, simple style of her writing that I’ve found in all three of her books. It actually was ‘Young Man with a Horn’ that got me hooked on her novels first. I suppose i have a fondness for tragic stories of musicians dying young, but I did think Baker’s telling of the story was effective.

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  5. Thanks for the link to your review of Trio. I’m going to have to track down a copy of this one (the library network is a possibility) as it does sound fascinating! Baker is so good when it comes to dialogue, isn’t she? I noticed it in Cassandra, but the same is true of Young Man.

    I’d like to hope that NYRB have got their eye on Trio as a future reissue just to extend the set.

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    • Hi Jacqui,
      Good luck finding Trio. I’m not sure it is mainstream enough for NYRB, but it might be a good new direction for them.
      I was lucky that the Minneapolis library still had an original copy. Since Trio deals with an issue that was close to Dorothy Baker it is quite heartfelt and sincere.

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