Once a month I post all my book reviews from Goodreads on my blog, but I thought Gilded Age by Claire McMillan deserved it’s own post. No, not because it’s the best book I’ve ever read, it certainly is not, and not because it resulted in any life shattering revelation on my part. Not even because it’s named after one of my favorite times in history. The reason this book get’s it’s own post is simply because it takes place where I live. In my lovely little insular city that is so many things to so many different people and no one from the outside knows it. I grew up going to camp in New Hampshire every summer where my, mostly New Englander, friends seemed to think I grew up in a corn field. They were fascinated that we didn’t have CVS (it was Revco at the time and let me point out that they didn’t have that) that I called it pop instead of soda, that we have a beach (they don’t call the lakes Great for nothing), and they somehow still seem amazed when they find out people with money actually still live here. But the fact of the matter is that a great number of Clevelanders will never leave Cleveland, not because they can’t, but because they (gasp!) don’t want to. A lot of them are idealistic youths who are on a constant quest to improve this little former industrialist gem, but they are not the ones donating money for the new hospital wing, or the new program at a local college, it’s all a matter of scale I suppose.
The thing about books that are retellings of classics is that it’s hard to gauge how good they are. Writing style is easy to decided upon, the story is somewhat more difficult. After all, this is a classic that’s stood the test of time. Instead of plot what really needs questioning is how well this modern adaption works against it’s predasesor. I think this retelling of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth worked fairly well. Then again, I’m a little bit biased. I’m from Cleveland and it seems as though every time someone mentions Cleveland in a book, or any other media outlet for that matter, they are mentioning it in the same breath as polution or economic hardship or sports teams that never win. This may be, actually, the first time I’ve seen a different side of Cleveland shown. The side of (gasp!) society.
Eleanor (Ellie) Hart has just returned home to Cleveland after her extravagant marriage in New York ended in a very public divorce. As she re-enters society with no skills and no experience for a job, not to mention a lack of drive, Ellie realizes quickly on that she’s best suited to the life of having a rich husband. But in an insular society like this it’s not always easy to keep one’s head above the water and as Ellie woos and sabotages suitor after suitor she starts to wonder if it’s not really love that she’s looking for. But, between gossip and her old weaknesses it’s possible it may be too late.
The main reason I picked up this book was the location. As stated above, I’m a Clevelander. Actually, I’m not far off from the Clevelander she described. The one who leaves for awhile and then comes home. Of course, I didn’t come back toting my own Import to marry, but I returned none the less for all the reasons she states. I like the closeness of it. I like being somewhere that I’m known, where I consistently run into people I know, where I know I can get tickets to events and shows I want to see. The fact that’s it’s affordable is convenient cause even though I’ve witnessed it first hand on many occassions, I’m not a part of the society she talks about. And this society is perfect for this sort of novel. The House of Mirth took place in New York, as Wharton novels tend to do, but setting this sort of story in modern New York is difficult. Yes, New York society is thrown in the general populace’s face, but the fact of the matter is that New York is filled with wealthy people to the point where that sort of society is too big anymore. These aren’t the days of calling cards and staying in in the afternoon. These are the days of working whether you need to or not, they are the days of Wall Street and Hedge Funds and, most prevalently and importantly, new money. Now, I’m not saying that Cleveland doesn’t have those things, but this is a city where the old families still cling to a certain way of life, a certain social standing, they still all see each other nearly every weekend at whatever event is going and belong to a club made specifically for Cleveland’s founders. Honestly, it’s closer to the Wharton way than New York is these days. I have this perfect image in my head of Claire McMillian’s life. Reading between the lines in her bio it’s not particularly difficult to see that she’s the import, from California, encountering Cleveland society as a newcomer. She probably looked around, agog, and thought ‘My god, it’s like a Wharton novel’, and decided to make it one. [After reading a Q&A with the author the truth of the matter was that she was always into Wharton and the reason was because she believed the same things go on today, true, true, and it doesn’t really change what I said just there.]
But even if I had never encountered this world at all I would still have read this book, because she talks about Severence Hall and the art museum. Because when the narrator walks home from Cedar Hill she turns into the neighborhood where I grew up. Because I’ve been to plenty farms in Hunting Valley. Because I know Chagrin Falls and Downtown and the Shaker Lakes. This is pretty much a Clevelander’s dream.
And this follows The House of Mirth pretty damned well. Ellie Hart is pretty pathetic as far as characters go, her view of life, as a wife, is pretty antiquated. But that’s not to say that people like that don’t exist, and Lily Bart was always a tragic character anyway. Honestly, there aren’t that many people to like in this novel. Ellie is a mess, William Selden makes all sort of terrible decisions and snap judgment, villianess Diana Dorset is pretty dispicable, elder non-gossip Betsey Dorset is a terrible snob, and the narrator judges her friend terribly while flirting with her own infidelity. I could go on. But then again, I’ve never had a problem with characters that weren’t particularly likable. In fact, I think they are fairly necessary at times. It’s still possible to root for characters that aren’t good people, it’s been done plenty of times, and I found myself liking Ellie dispite her ridiculous ideas and actions, I liked Selden even if he couldn’t seem to get his head together, I liked the narrator even if her choices would never have been mine.
Strangely, I think my favorite part of this book was the subplot between the narrator and her ex-boyfriend Henry ‘Cinco’ Van Alstyne V. I know that this was a retelling of Wharton and I know the main subject was Ellie Hart, but I couldn’t help myself being a little drawn in by this tiny niblet. The narrator and Cinco dated off and on through their teens and into college but when the narrator proclaimed that she would never return to Cleveland and he never thought of not returning to his ancestral home their relationship fizzled. She repeatedly proclaims that she and Cinco were “never like that” when the subject of them remaining together comes up, but it comes across as completely false. And when it turns out that she did, in fact, return to Cleveland, husband in tow, emotions are somewhat churned. I loved this. I thought it deserved more. But then again, if it had gotten it the subplot would have likely lost it’s charm.
Overall, I liked this book for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s Cleveland location and secondly, because it fits with the original Wharton, a modern spin on an old story. But, I can appreciate that it wasn’t great. It dragged at times, there wasn’t really any one to root for and sometimes it took itself a little too seriously. But those are faults I can easily overlook. I liked it and I’d like to see what McMillian tries next, perhaps a story of her own, I’d be interested to read it.