Hardcover, 224 pages
Published June 12th 2012
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My rating: 3.5./5
Goodreads Summary: Intelligent, witty, and poignant, Gilded Age presents a modern Edith Wharton heroine—dramatically beautiful, socially prominent, and just a bit unconventional—whose return to the hothouse of Cleveland society revives rivalries, raises eyebrows, and reveals the tender vulnerabilities of a woman struggling to reconcile her desire for independence and her need for love. ELEANOR HART had made a brilliant marriage in New York, but it ended in a scandalous divorce and thirty days in Sierra Tucson rehab. Now she finds that, despite feminist lip service, she will still need a husband to be socially complete. A woman’s sexual reputation matters, and so does her family name. Ellie must navigate the treacherous social terrain where old money meets new: charitable benefits and tequila body shots, inherited diamonds and viper-bite lip piercings, country house weekends and sexting. She finds that her beauty is a powerful tool in this world, but it has its limitations, even liabilities. Through one misstep after another, Ellie mishandles her second act. Her options narrow, her future prospects contract, until she faces a desperate choice.
With a keen eye for the perfect detail and a heart big enough to embrace those she observes, Claire McMillan has written an assured and revelatory debut novel about class, gender, and the timeless conundrum of femininity.
I've spent the last few months submerged deeply in The House of Mirth, the topic of my MA thesis. So when I saw that there was a modern retelling...well, lets just say I haven't pined for a book this strongly in a long time. Apart from the fact that I had to figure out how to get my hands on it (because there was a whole month until it was published), I had to part with my biases and try to separate McMillan from Wharton, and Cleveland from New York. I didn't know what to make of a setting like Cleveland mansions and country clubs and imagined that it would resemble Big Rich Texas. Plus, does the idea that women need to marry in order to be successful stand the test of time?
McMillan builds her story around the premise of House of Mirth with slight deviations; a young divorced woman, a trendsetter whose star is slowly fading, returns home to Cleveland. She is broke and without means to provide for herself. So she tries to do what all her girlfriends did: find a nice rich guy and get married. But her "flightiness" gets in her way; Ellie can't decide whether to follow her heart or her head. I won't discuss the plot here, because it would ruin both Gilded Age and House of Mirth. I'll just say that I loved most of the solutions that McMillan came up with to implement some of Wharton's ideas into the present time. While sticking closely to the core ideas of House of Mirth, McMillan also manages to shine through as a very talented writer with a distinct voice of her own.
Ellie and Lily Bart possess basically the same traits, but Ellie lacks Lily's complexity of character that make her "such an interesting study". (See how I can't stop quoting Wharton? Occupational hazard, I tell ya). Mostly, these were down to the broader context of The House of Mirth that Gilded Age doesn't have. I found it hard to sympathize with a girl whose sole purpose in life is marriage and who is lazy (yes, lazy, and I stand behind it) to go out and make a living for herself. While I could (to some extent) understand the forces behind Lily's reluctance to work, I didn't feel that it is justified with Ellie. Not in the circumstances of today. The saddest part is, I know that there are people like that out there, and this is not on McMillan's account. But I just wanted to grab Ellie by her shoulders and shake some common sense into her.
I'm trying to figure out how I would feel about Gilded Age if I hadn't read The House of Mirth. It is entertaining and well-written, there are many interesting and colorful characters, but I'm not sure that the story is what you would call grabbing. Looking back, I don't think that the novel benefited from a narrator that is not Ellie. I totally forgot the narrator's name, if it's ever mentioned. Or if it had to be someone else than Ellie, then anyone other than this supposed-to-be-close-friend but is more concerned with her married ex while she herself has a husband a a small child. The narrator's questioning of her own marriage often led into (for me) unnecessary digressions. Some crucial moments of Ellie's life are therefore overlooked, and only recounted and commented on later.
In conclusion, I can't say that Gilded Age was disappointing. It's not bad, but I wasn't swooned either. I guess the best part of it-staying close to House of Mirth, turned out what I disliked most. The marriage and leisure plot just didn't work for me. If you're a Wharton fan, do check it out.
Many thanks to my boyfriend for this present!