This quote from Romeo and Juliet feels very apt after reading The Social Graces by Renee Rosen:
“Two households both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona where we lay our scene)…”*
If by “households,” you mean obscenely wealthy families and by “dignity,” you mean the lengths they will go to to outdo each other in opulence and flamboyance, and by “fair Verona,” you mean New York City at the height of the Gilded Age – a time period where the most ruthless men used and abused the little guy to make fortunes the likes of which we almost cannot fathom today.
<Side note: Except we kind of can. See Jeff Bezos’ comments regarding his sincere appreciation to Amazon users for financing his space flight if you need proof. This is exactly what I imagine the robber barons must have been like.>
Where are the women in this, you might ask.
Well, in this world, women had few opportunities to do anything. Especially wealthy women who were relegated to party planning and children producing (not raising mind you, there was staff for that) and nothing else. So, the ladies of quality founded Society. Because if party planning was all they were allowed to do, then by God, they were going to be as ruthless and as vicious in Society as their husbands were in their business world.
Truly, I wonder what the world would look like today if our main characters (and real life Society matrons) Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt had been about to do, well, really anything else. With iron will (if you want to be harsh) or with gusto and enthusiasm (if you want to be kind) they plotted and manipulated their way to the top of Society. Their political savvy and ruthless manipulation would have made both of the forces to be reckoned with in either business or politics, had they been allowed to participate in either.
In The Social Graces, Renee Rosen does a masterful job at exposing the complex characters of:
Caroline Astor – a woman of old money, a Knickerbocker, married for power and worked tirelessly to secure her place at the top of Society’s food chain. As Society is inundated with the nouveau riche, she can only watch her empire start crumbling all around her.
Alva Vanderbilt – the epitome of the nouveau riche, the outsider who desperately wants to fit into NY Society, only to be snubbed at every turn finally decides to do something about it. When she forces her way in and finally achieves her dream of acceptance, she discovers it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
The emotional depth that Rosen brings to these characters is so engaging that you’ll just keep turning the pages to see what extravagant or outlandish thing happens next. In fact, I wonder if these two women, under different circumstances, could have been friends. They both seem to have been dealt a great deal of pain, heartache, and loss during their lives that would have made them easy friends. Alas, it’s not to be since Caroline was a huge snob, unwilling to relinquish the baton as Society matron and Alva, young and hungry, decided to rip it from her still holding-on-for-dear-life fingers. Can’t really pursue friendship after that.
If you’re anything like me, you have your phone handy to Google images of everyone and everything mentioned in the book.
I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction. Not sure what it is about the genre, especially since I love history and I love fiction, but I don’t tend to read a lot of it. This one though. It isn’t often that I start writing my review of the book BEFORE I actually finish reading it, so if that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.
That being said, there is something for knowing how the story ends (as Mr. Librarian points out, “You know that the Titanic is going to sink.”) but that I just wanted more.
Definitely read this alongside Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray’s The Personal Librarian for a more in depth look at the Gilded Age and the role of women during this era. <Side note: I read this one at about the same time, and while I enjoyed The Social Graces a bit more, I definitely loved reading about the life of J.P. Morgan’s real-life librarian who led a double life, hoping no one found out her big secret. Highly recommend.>
The Social Graces by Renee Rosen, published 2021
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, published 2021
*Thank you Folger Shakespeare Library for having the prologue available to me online instead of me having to dig up a copy of R&J to be sure I was getting the wording exactly right. Definitely wouldn’t want to misquote or plagiarize The Bard.