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.
McMillan's debut novel, inspired by Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, is a hard-edged look at the vacuous, insipid elite of modern-day Cleveland, Ohio. Ellie Hart, back home after rehab and divorce, quickly falls into her old ways, charming men in her search for a wealthy husband, and alienating women. She hooks up with old friend William Selden, who seems more substantial than Ellie's shallow "friends." But when Ellie's divorce settlement disappears in a Ponzi scheme, and her wild ways send Selden away, her desperation leads her to the ambitious, social-climbing Leforte and the comforts of his "enfolding luxury." While the novel tips its hat to House of Mirth, a simple comparison doesn't do McMillan justice. Her choice of alternating narration from first-person (in the form of a childhood friend) to third, rather than wholly omniscient allows the reader to get to know the increasingly unlikable narrator, a woman trying to absolve herself of guilt over her friend's downfall. It's hard to feel sympathy for Ellie, whose desire for acceptance makes learning from her mistakes unlikely. Here is a group of people who waste their resources playing a meaningless game of social comeuppance. McMillan's characters may lack the complexity of Wharton's, but she has a sharp eye when it comes to their weaknesses.
I loved this book. Interesting, unusual, modern.