Monday, January 9, 2012

'The Gilded Age'

"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth"
                -Ecclesiastes 7:4

Like many Americans, I've become hooked on the BBC series, 'Downton Abbey'.  Although it is reminiscent of another BBC classic, 'Upstairs Downstairs', it is a fantastic chronicle of privileged life in pre-WW1 England.  And that brings to mind Edith Wharton, and how much I love her novels.  She skewered 19th century society so thoroughly as only one who has lived it can.  Although I loved 'The House of Mirth', Lily Bart's ultimate demise distressed me.  But that was that time; that was how upper-crust society functioned in the late 1800's-early 1900's.

But times have changed.  Or have they?

Claire McMillan's new novel, 'Gilded Age', is not so much a reworking of Wharton's famous novel, but more of a contemporary satire of love gained, love lost, and the ultimate end.  It is a story of society's demands; once you reach the top, you can only fall back down.  And Ellie Hart has done it all.  She has survived an infamous divorce and a stint in rehab, and is now back in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.  Of all the characters in this novel, I love Ellie the most.  She is brash, out-of-control...but I expected more from her.  But then, this is a reworking of 'The House of Mirth', and we all know how that ended.

I did not feel sorry for the other characters; I felt rather...set apart from them.  Marry for money and security?  Ha! Money and society's approval equals happiness?  I don't think so.  But I applaud Ms. McMillan's well-written story.  It makes me appreciate how far women have come; how we don't need to 'marry for money' in order to survive.  We can start our own businesses, use our own brains.  We can live alone and like it.  But I enjoyed reading 'Gilded Age'.  It was well-written, but the narrator did not earn my sympathy.  But perhaps she wasn't supposed to earn it.  

For one who has no money and societal 'approval', I was rather amused to read about the chronicles of a contemporary woman who was considered a 'nobody' without marriage, money, and prestige.  The novel is pure entertainment, although the ending was expected, as in Ms. Wharton's much-heralded novel.

Poor wealthy women.  Poor wealthy men.  Boo-hoo.

I'm crying in my champagne.

Claire McMillan's wonderful novel will be released in June 2012.


Rachel said...

I love House of Mirth, though it breaks my heart every time. Thanks for letting me know about Gilded Age - I'll definitely have to check it out later this year.

I recently read more about Wharton, though, and she was a rich, married woman who wrote as a luxury. From what I read, she wasn't trying to take on a society that demanded that women marry well or die alone - she actually agreed. She saw the upper crust falling by the wayside and thought an appropriate end for someone who refused to conform was a miserable, lonely death.

That kind of ruined her books for me. Although, of course, she can't stop me from reading them through a more modern, feminist lens.

Thank goodness we still have Kate Chopin!

Jacki said...

I loved 'The Awakening'! Chopin had my attention from the very first page.