It's September 1899 and the Manhattan season is starting off with a bang. Elizabeth Holland, the darling of the high society set, has returned from her year in Paris in time for the first ball of the season, held at her best friend Penelope Hayes' newly finished and incredibly vulgar mansion. Penelope is all about showing herself to the best advantage, and has her sights set on young rake Henry Schoonmaker - but his father has other ideas. Intending to run for mayor the following year, he wants his only son to shape up and marry a good girl from a good family: Elizabeth.
The day after the ball, he proposes to Elizabeth and is accepted (even though her heart belongs to the young coachman, Will, whom her maid, Lina, also loves), because Henry's family has money and the Holland family now has none - which no one know about except them. You have to keep up appearances, after all. This is the day he also meets Elizabeth's younger sister, Diana, and there's something about her that captivates him like no other girl ever has. It's a tangled mess and it's about to get a whole lot messier as Penelope schemes to break up the engagement.
Okay, I'll admit that despite being rather anti-girly, I've always had a thing for dresses and period costumes, and the big poofy thing on the cover certainly fascinated me. But it also repelled me: it's just so HUGE and PINK and PUFFY!
The descriptions of this novel/series that I came across said it was like Gossip Girls and that it was about New York High Society girls at the turn of the century - well it all put me off. Until a friend recommended it, and I'm glad she did, for as ridiculous as the dress is, the book is really very good.
I don't watch Gossip Girls, so I can't speak to any similarities there - what I was reminded of, though, was Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers. Admittedly, I have read very few books set in 19th century Manhattan, so Wharton's book was the only one I could think of, mostly because it's about four girls from "new money" making their way in the world amongst the British upper class. I highly recommend it, or the TV mini-series based on it.
Anyway, I completely expected to be utterly bored by this book, but instead I was vastly entertained and gripped by the unfolding mystery and tension, and even though the prologue tells you the ending, it doesn't tell you anything, and you're never sure what's going to happen next or how it all worked out. I did suspect from the very beginning the truth about Elizabeth, though.
There was plenty to love and enjoy here, despite the somewhat clichéd characters. The setting is vividly brought to life, though I would imagine some people wouldn't care for the little asides about dress fabrics and ormulu (gilt-bronze) inlaid chairs, but to me it added some necessary and authentic detail, as well as showing (without actually telling) the disparity between classes and "breeding": the gaudy over-the-top grandeur of the Hayes' new mansion; the stately but stuffy Schoonmaker home; and the refined, old-world elegance of the Hollands' - all highlighting the still-pervasive class clash between old money and new, inherited from the British.
The period is also supported by little clippings from newspapers, journals and those books on the proper deportment of a lady at the beginnings of the chapters, which help remind you of the world outside and surrounding these preoccupied young women, and how everyone is watching them. There is some thought given to class consciousness, the social expectations, pretensions and manoeuvring of the rich, but I was pleased to see it didn't suffer from too much "presentism". It was also good to have one of the protagonists be a lady's maid who ends up on the street - you get to see the less glamorous, more hard-working "trade" side of the city.
Of the four protagonists: Elizabeth, Diana, Penelope and Lina, I liked Diana the most. Probably because she was the most honest, direct and least girly, she had spunk and flair and was the least superficial. Elizabeth was handled well: a goody-goody, demure and seemingly innocent girl in public, sharp and uncomfortable with her maid Lina in private, and relaxed and true to herself with Will - a realistic portrait of how most of us present different sides to different people, sometimes what is expected of us, or what creates armour for us, or what enables us to get along with people the best. Elizabeth wasn't all that likeable because she didn't stand up for herself as much as you'd want, but she was definitely sympathetic.
The bitch of the book is Penelope, of course - and she's marvellous at it. She's the character you "love to hate". She's the most straight-forward of all the characters, and spiteful, and duplicitous, and you have to admire her tenacity.
Godbersen's prose helps lift the novel above the usual fare - it's nothing fancy, but it is solid, capable, unpretentious, and confident. I thought it started a little slowly, but once I became interested in the characters the pacing really picked up and held me. The author doesn't have any annoying ticks or over-used favourite words, so it flows well and smoothly. For a debut novel, it is remarkably polished, free of typos and other poor editing glitches (though I doubt "gotten" is as old as 1899). There are four books in the series: The Luxe, Rumors, Envy and Splendor. I had to look up what "Luxe" means because I had no idea: it's a noun meaning "luxury" or "abundance". Fitting.