Gilded Age by Claire McMillan
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Published on: June 1, 2012
Page Count: 256
My Reading Format: Review copy sent to me by the publisher for consideration.
Available Formats: Hardcover, eBook, and Audiobook
Giveaway: This review copy is so cute I’d love to pay it forward to an interested reader. Leave a comment on this post by Monday, August 30th for a chance to win. I’ll pick the lucky reader using Random.org.
If a person has socially burned her bridges today’s world, what are her options? In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, the future wasn’t so bright, but that novel was set nearly a century ago. In Gilded Age, author Claire McMillan explores this idea using Cleveland’s high society as the backdrop. Cleveland, just like any city, has its Rockefellers and the way in which people who move within that social setting are transforming as a result of modern society. Still, there are things that never change. One goes to the opera on just the right evening in one’s family’s box to be seen. The same is true of attending fund raisers at the art museum. When Ellie Hart and an unnamed female narrator, both young Cleveland socialites return to their hometown after leaving for New York City in their early twenties, there are expectations. The narrator ostensibly has lived up to them while she was away. She returns with a suitable husband and has a child on the way. Ellie, not so much. She also married in New York City, but her marriage ended in divorce and a stint in rehab. They both have high hopes for their lives back in Cleveland. The question is, can life in Cleveland live up to them?
I enjoyed the ways in which Ellie and the narrator navigated through Cleveland society after returning from New York City. Their stories are told in alternating chapters. The narrator lays the stage in first person first and then Ellie’s experiences are further fleshed out in third person. What I found the most interesting was the way in which the narrator paints the story of her life as impacted by Ellie. While they seem to share a close history, she’s tentative about associating herself with Ellie too intimately. She’s at least have plans made up for building a wall between them, even if construction hasn’t yet begun. I wonder how she’d feel if she knew that Ellie was much more on her mind than she was ever on Ellie’s? This distance I detected made me like Ellie just that much more than the narrator, despite her issues and flighty behavior. She seemed more genuine to me, at least as genuine as a socialite desperate to replant herself into society can be.
Gilded Age was not without issues. Although Cleveland was mentioned quite often, I got more of a sense of the social structure than I ever did of the city itself. It still could have been set in any major American city. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was about the book that made me feel this way. Claire McMillan mentioned several real landmarks, but somehow it never took shape for me. It also bothered me that the narrator was never named. She was the only character who wasn’t. There may be a perfectly good reason for this, but it never made sense to me. I also wasn’t as interested in this narrator’s secondary storyline as I would have liked to have been. This seemed odd to me because she had just given birth to her first child and hormones were flying. It made sense to me that she would be questioning her life. I know that I did. Still, her feelings about a former boyfriend felt incidental instead of important. If it were removed from the novel altogether, it wouldn’t have diminished the story in my eyes.
Gilded Age, although not perfect, was a perfect summertime read. It was a quick, engaging read full of glitz, glamour, and scandal. When comparing it against other society dramas, it was interesting to see what has changed and what has not. Those things that haven’t changed are actually the most compelling. I purchased a copy of The House of Mirth over Christmas and I really wish I had read it along with Gilded Age. If you like to pair up classics with new releases, I would highly recommend the combining Edith Wharton and Claire McMillan.