Monthly Archives: August 2022

Sunday Review: The Social Graces by Renée Rosen

The Social Graces tells the story of the rivalry between two women, a generation apart, who led New York Society in the late 1800s.

Caroline Schermerhorn Astor was known as THE Mrs. Astor. If you weren’t among the 400 socialites invited to her annual ball or her summer clambake in Newport, RI, you simply weren’t part of the elite. And people with “new money”—the railroad barons, etc.—didn’t have a prayer of receiving one of her coveted invitations. That is, until determined, clever Alva Vanderbilt came along.

This sharp dichotomy between old and new money is tremendously ironic. The founder of the Astor fortune, the first John Jacob Astor, was hardly a cultivated person. I describe him this way in my first novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte:

Astor was a short man with dark blond hair, drooping brown eyes, and a large pointed nose. He spoke English with a German accent, and his manners were nearly as rough as the fur trappers who had made his fortune, but Betsy liked him because they shared the traits of ambition, determination, and practicality.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much I’d like a novel about two wealthy, privileged women competing to be the queen of New York society. However, I thought that, in their separate narratives (each has third-person point-of-view chapters threaded throughout the book), Rosen dramatized enough of the heartbreaks they endured and the life lessons they learned to convey their essential humanity. Both women make terrible mistakes with regard to their children, but in this portrayal at least, I never doubted their good intentions. (I’ve read enough other accounts of Alva Vanderbilt to wonder if Rosen was perhaps being too kind.)

Rosen made one other choice in the novel that I absolutely loved. Two of my favorite pieces of literature—the short story “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner and the poem “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson—share an unusual characteristic: both are narrated by the collective voice of the community in which the main character lives. I have always felt this modern version of the Greek chorus adds a unique perspective and have wished that more authors would make use of the technique.

Well, Rosen has a third voice to her narrative, in addition to the focusing closely on the lives of each woman. She has chapters narrated by “society” that give the collective opinion on the actions of Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt. The last word, so to speak. This device reveals more of the broader impact of the two women, and I found it very effective.

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Filed under 19th century life, American history, Book Reviews, fiction, Historical fiction

Sunday Review: The Paris Bookseller by Kerry Maher

This historical novel tells the story of Sylvia Beach, founder and owner of the famous Shakespeare and Company English-language bookstore in Paris. Although this is a single-timeline novel, there are a couple of important threads to the story: Beach’s love affair with the French bookstore owner Adrienne Monnier and her interactions with the writers and artists who flocked to Paris in the 1920s, most importantly James Joyce.

Beach knew Joyce at the time he was writing his masterpiece Ulysses. Excerpts had been published in literary journals, and Joyce’s frank depictions of bodily functions and human sexuality caused American officials to deem it pornography, making it a crime to sell or even send through the U.S. mails. Beach believed strongly in Joyce’s art, so she decided to publish the novel in Paris, even though she had never published anything before.

As portrayed in the novel, the relationship between Beach and Joyce is tremendously complicated. Joyce is grateful, in his own way, but he also has the kind of entitled personality that just accepts the things that other people do for him. One of the interesting questions of the story is this: does Joyce take advantage of Beach, or does Beach fail to stand up for herself? Or is their relationship an unhealthy combination in which both are true?

Other prominent literary figures wander through the pages, among them Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. Beach was more than just a bookstore owner; she promoted the groundbreaking literature of the time, and many people felt that she played a pivotal role in nurturing their careers.

Beach’s relationship with Monnier is beautifully depicted. The two women have a deep and abiding love, but as they live through legal hassles, economic hard times, and World War II, the stressors they experience affect them in different ways, and they begin to grow apart. I never lost my sympathy for either of them even when I wanted their choices to be different.

This is an excellent novel for lovers of Paris and of American letters.

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Filed under Book Reviews, France, Historical fiction, Paris, Twentieth century