Book Review for “The Social Graces” by Renée Rosen.
Summary: “In the glittering world of Manhattan’s upper crust, where wives turn a blind eye to husbands’ infidelities, and women have few rights and even less independence, society is everything. The more celebrated the hostess, the more powerful the woman. And none is more powerful than Caroline Astor—the Mrs. Astor. But times are changing. Alva Vanderbilt has recently married into one of America’s richest families. But what good is money when society refuses to acknowledge you? Alva, who knows what it is to have nothing, will do whatever it takes to have everything.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Fiction; Settings: Historical, USA – New York, Hamptons; Other Categories: Novel, Women, Biographical, Coming-of-Age.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the rivalry between Alva Vanderbilt and Caroline Astor was absolutely epic. Plus, if you think about the level of their wealth, it is staggering even according to today’s standards – who pays tens of thousands of dollars for a ball gown today? Add in inflation and you could feed a small country on what they spent on something they wore only once! But we’re still fascinated, even as we might be simultaneously repulsed, by the rich and famous and their enormous extravagances. One reason for this is possibly because we wish we had their wealth, and all the freedoms that it might provide. At the same time, we can’t ignore that these are still human beings, people just like us in many ways, so to realize that they’re equally as flawed as we are, despite their huge bank balances, is somewhat comforting. Mind you, it can also feel like a small revenge to see that their lives were also less than perfect; if they couldn’t be happy with all that wealth, then maybe they deserved to suffer.
This type of book always reminds me of the story that Kurt Vonnegut once told of his conversation with author Joseph Heller when they attended a fancy party thrown by a hedge fund manager. Vonnegut noted that their host made more money in one day than “Catch-22” ever made for him his whole life, and he asked Heller how that made him feel. Heller said that he had something his host would never have. When Vonnegut asked what that was, Heller’s reply was “The knowledge that I have enough.” Rosen really does bring this point home in this book. Both of these women are so ruthless regarding what is or is not acceptable, and how much one must spend in order to impress society, that they seem inhumanly insatiable. And yet, Rosen figured out how to bring out their humanity, their hearts, and let us care for these women, who seem to care only for themselves and their position.
That sounds like an impossible feat, but this is where Rosen’s genius came through. The way that Rosen gets us to have some sympathy for these two women who seem to only deserve apathy from us, is through a mechanic from about 20 centuries ago. I’m speaking of a chorus, much like we find in Greek plays from the 1st century BCE, where a group speak in unison as a type of objective narrator to the action. Rosen calls her chorus “Society” and she has them speak in first person plural (we, us, our). What Rosen accomplishes with this is several things. Most importantly, she uses this chorus to both ridicule and make fun of Alva and Caroline, as the situations require. In addition, here is where Rosen can slip in all the who’s who and extraneous events that would have bogged down the rest of the narrative, and distracted the reader from getting to know these two women. You can’t tell me that isn’t brilliant, and kudos to Rosen for doing this (and thereby avoiding not one but two of my major pet peeves with historical fiction – name dropping and a glut of unrelated historical events and details).
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some details here, because Rosen knows that some things can’t be overlooked. For example, we get a whole lot of information (but not too much) about certain gowns worn by both of these two ladies. We also find out how opulent Alva’s taste was in designing and decorating building – including her own home in New York, her “cottage” in the Hamptons, and some fictional contributions to the décor for the Metropolitan Opera House. Rosen also shows the distinction between how Caroline is more conservative (but no less extravagant) in how she displays herself in society, in contrast to Alva’s attempts to outdo Caroline with her innovations. Thankfully, these are the window dressings here, and not the essence of this story, which is how these two women act and react to each other, their families, and the world in which they live.
I want to partially define this book as being a type of coming-of-age novel, since Rosen concentrates on how each of these women grow and change throughout the story, as does her Society Chorus. I also want to congratulate Rosen on all of the romantic bits being so nicely understated, even in the parts where Rosen describes the men in these women’s lives, as well as the suitors (both good and bad) to their daughters. That Rosen shows how these women adapted (at least somewhat) to the changing times, despite their innate drive to always be on top, made them far more likeable than I thought was possible. That Rosen made me cry at the end (and not about anyone’s death), only means that I have no option but to wholeheartedly recommend this novel with a full five stars out of five!
Berkeley Publishing Group (will) release(d) “The Social Graces” by Renée Rosen on April 20, 2021. This book is (will be) available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.