On “The Luxe” by Anna Godbersen

The_Luxe_bookcover2
courtesy of Wikipedia.org

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

I am so late to the party when it comes to Anna Godbersen‘s The Luxe. Where was it when I was going through severe Gossip Girl withdrawals? All that time when I was pining for more Blair Waldorf/Chuck Bass drama, I could have found even juicier stuff in the world of the Holland sisters, Penelope Hayes, and Henry Schoonmaker. Those nouveau riche have nothing on those old New York families; the prestige of family money cannot be bought. Or so those old New Yorkers would have you think.

While Godbersen’s story is essentially a turn-of-the-century Gossip Girl tale of scandal, betrayal, and the filthy rich, it is also an exploration of that crucial time in history where the poorest of poor could make a fortune for themselves and, in an instant, change the very core of society. Men and women are defecting to the wild west where the skies are as wide as people’s dreams. This drive for a better life in which people do not have to serve the wealthy becomes the silent undercurrent of Godbersen’s book.

But make no mistake, the novel is by and large about how the debutantes and eligible bachelors of New York City’s disgustingly wealthy elite juggle their romantic prospects. Juicy scandals and catty attitudes abound in Godbersen’s depiction of New York in 1899. The world is changing, but a few things remain the same for people in Elizabeth and Diana Holland’s set. Diana, the free spirit, could care less about the severity hidden beneath the glittering wealth of her family and friends. She wants to live an adventurous life like one of her novel’s heroines, but unfortunately, she has a rich person’s understanding of poverty. It’s not exactly the romantic walk in the park she seems to think it is.

Alas, she’s not like her level-headed, practical sister, Elizabeth, who is perfect. She has learned every rule and is always kind. When their mother reveals that the death of their father has left the family in dire straits financially, Elizabeth will undoubtedly do everything to please her mother, including marrying for wealth over love. No one knows, though, that saving her family means ruining her own life. Since she was a child, she’s been in love with the family’s coachman, Will Keller, and he insists that she flee west with him. But a good person like Elizabeth can’t just abandon her family. Little does she know, she has to contend with her maid, and former childhood friend, Lina Broud, who is also deeply in love with Will.

Enter Henry Schoonmaker—the most eligible bachelor and the unapologetic bad boy of elite New York. Women fall all over themselves for him, and he basks in the adoration. That is, until, his permanently angry father decides to run for office and forces Henry to become propose to Elizabeth Holland—society’s darling. He’s forced to end his affair with Penelope Hayes, Elizabeth’s best frenemy, who is dead set on having Henry for herself. Chaos ensues.

To be honest, Elizabeth is the only character I rooted for in this book. You might think, “Of course, she’s the nice girl. That’s boring,” but I legitimately felt bad for her. The situation she’s in is unfathomable. Then again, all the other characters are terrible people, so she doesn’t have a whole lot of competition. Though there are moments where the reader can sympathize with them, one cannot forget their true natures: conniving, self-serving, and, in Penelope’s case, cruel.

Then I thought, that’s exactly what makes them so appealing. Like Gossip Girl, which I hate-watched.

We dislike these characters for their snobbery and their condescension and the overall wastefulness of their lifestyles. But we also love it for those very reasons. Watching the rich flounder and fall from grace is frighteningly satisfying…

But on a less “eat the rich” note, it’s also humanizing. Usually, we see people in positions of extreme privilege and forget that they are often forced to live a certain way, trading happiness for a life of comfort. Maybe not so much anymore, but definitely so at the turn of the century.

Godbersen ultimately does a fantastic job of developing the ambiance of late 1800’s New York. She integrates lush historical details seamlessly into the landscape of her characters’ lives, and it was nearly impossible not to imagine it becoming a film or television show similar to the 2012 Great Gatsby remake where everything on set is larger than life and constantly moving. Someone pass the message along.

All that being said, it’s a great poolside read for the upcoming summer months. You could finish it in one sitting if you’re ambitious enough, but the chapters really fly by.

Rest assured, I will continue to hate-read the rest of this series.

On Jami Attenberg’s “All Grown Up”

all grown upThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jami Attenberg‘s All Grown Up was not one of my Book of the Month Club selections. Something about the cover made it seem silly and frivolous, like a new Sex and the City installment. I think maybe, the cover is one of the worst things about books; it either deters people from reading it or puts the reader in the position of being extremely confused once they actually read the book.

This story is not, in fact, a re-hashed narrative from the likes of Carrie Bradshaw; rather it’s a 40-year-old woman’s reflection of her life in a series of vignettes that focus on different points of her life. Andrea Bern, an art school dropout, has spent her years filling the space that art left behind. She’s a more than occasional drug user and steady drinker—a free lover who doesn’t have much luck. And she will not apologize for her choice to be single and childless.

Each chapter concerns a person or moment in Andrea’s life that is crucial to her development as a character. For example, the birth of her niece, Sigrid, brings much more sorrow than joy; the child has a degenerative heart defect, which she will die from by the age of five. Self-immolating for years, Andrea can’t quite reach out to the child the way an aunt should, and, when her brother and his wife move to New Hampshire to care for Sigrid, Andrea rarely ever visits. She can’t handle the strain of the baby’s imminent death.

In another instance, one of Andrea’s closest friends gives birth to a son, and she truly believes that they will no longer be friends. Her analysis of the situation—at once comical and anxiety-laden—reveals her fundamental belief that those who have children and those who do not lose their ability to communicate with each other. Andrea does a lot of this throughout the book—she examines, analyzes.

Attenberg does an efficient job of introducing the reader to Andrea’s quirks and insecurities, but the novel’s best moments come after the book’s halfway point. As Andrea reveals more about her past and gives the reader a better sense of how her life comes to be what it is, she furnishes sharp, heartbreaking insights into the darkest parts of her past.

Andrea presents the facts of her life without sentiment. Attenberg wisely gives her a healthy dose of reliable narration, which allows the reader to see her as she is: no filter. The novel’s most stunning and hard hitting moments come in the final two chapters when Andrea’s drug-addicted father imbues her with the wisdom of artists, the heart of which, the reader will realize, she has internalized her entire life; the artist’s endless search for happiness and fulfillment will never come. Only through the art itself will the artist find something like contentment. And the novel’s final moments concern the death of young Sigrid—the real darkness underlying the entire novel.

In that moment, Andrea is left only with her hopes for what will happen. To herself and her family. The uncertainty with which Attenberg leaves the reader is the greatest farewell.