Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The American Heiress Review

I was immediately drawn to this book when I saw this review excerpted on amazon: "Anyone suffering Downton Abbey withdrawal symptoms (who isn't?) will find an instant tonic in Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress. The story of Cora Cash, an American heiress in the 1890s who bags an English duke, this is a deliciously evocative first novel that lingers in the mind." --Allison Pearson, New York Times

I'm sure I've mentioned before that I obsessively love Downton Abbey... and pretty much anything from the Edwardian/Victorian period in England. I bought The American Heiress ages ago but finally got around to reading it. I'd been so immersed in Hugh Howey's Wool series that I needed to take a break with a totally different kind of novel.

For those of you who are Downton Abbey fans, you should know that this could be the story of Lady Grantham, the wealthy American wife of Lord Grantham. Apparently it's also similar to the story of Winston Churchill's mother, Lady Randolph Churchill (here's another interesting article on Lady Jennie). There are certainly familiar elements of both Lady Grantham and Lady Randolph Churchill in The American Heiress.

The novel follows Cora Cash, the young, beautiful and insanely wealthy heir to a flour fortune. She lives in New York City during the Gilded Age, although the book opens up in Newport, Rhode Island, where the fabulously wealthy spent their summers. Cora's mother is determined to marry her daughter off to a European title, which is of course the one thing that their money can't necessarily buy (or can it?). Cora just wants to live her life uninterrupted and marry Teddy, a fellow NYC wealthy heir.

After a disastrous end of the summer party in Nantucket, Cora and her mother embark on a tour of England, sailing over in daddy's private steam yacht (it is ridiculous how much money people had back then!). During a hunt early on in the book, Cora is thrown from her horse and rescued by Ivo, a duke. Like many British nobles of the time, Ivo has the beautiful and ancient house and the title but very little money, as he was saddled with death duties after the deaths of his father and brother. Within a week (maybe a bit more), Ivo proposes and they are married in a grand NYC society wedding.

However, it becomes clear rather quickly that Cora and Ivo do not know each other very well. As they settle into their life in a gorgeous mansion in London and the ancestral home in the country, Cora realizes how difficult it is to fit into life in England. The rules are very different from what she became used to. Americans, especially wealthy heiresses, are known to be vulgar. Cora makes a lot of mistakes, which puts a strain on her marriage to Ivo. At the same time, an old family friend named Charlotte keeps hanging around, and it seems clear that she and Ivo have a history. Also her mother-in-law, the Double Duchess (who seems similar to Churchill's mother), doesn't make her life very easy.

The story is told from multiple perspectives, which is interesting. Cora is spoiled and brash, but also likable. She genuinely loves her husband, even when she does not understand him. Bertha, her half-black maid, shares the story of the "downstairs" world. Cora's mother also chimes into the story from time to time, as does Teddy, Cora's first love. There are various other characters who pop in and out as well, which makes the novel very well rounded.

It's on the longer side, close to 500 pages, but the story was always interesting. I know I said it before, but it's mind blowing how much money these people had! There's an Edith Wharton feel to the story as well, so fans of her work would probably enjoy this. I was pleasantly surprised by the ending as well. Cora could have come off as a total brat, but Goodwin wrote her to rise above her spoiled nature to become a very real, very interesting woman. I truly enjoyed this novel!

NY Times Review

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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