Thursday, June 16, 2011

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

The American Heiress: A Novel
The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

Daisy Goodwin on writing The American Heiress:
I started working on the novel a few years ago at the height of the economic boom (remember the boom?) when the newspapers and magazines were full of billionaires having fabulous parties on their diamond-encrused yachts.  But even the excesses of Trump or Abramovich pale in comparison with the consumption of America's Gilded Age, when diners at one Newport mansion were invited to prospect with tiny silver shovels for real gems in a miniature river that ran down the center of the dining table.  While certain details in The American Heiress might seem hard to believe-like the corset of solid gold trimmed with diamonds that Cora Cash wears on her wedding day- her trousseau is a replica of the one worn by dollar princess Consuelo Vanderbilt when she married the 9th Duke of Marlborough.  Just as contemporary starlets are written about in the media today, every details of Consuelo's wedding in 1895 was chronicled in Vogue.

Cora Cash and her journey through British high society are closely modeled on the forays in search of a title that so many rich American girls made at the end of the 19th century.  These heiresses subscribed to a periodical called The Titled American--a pre-digital version of listed all the titled bachelors still on the market.  The trade-off between money and titles was so successful that about a quarter of the members of the House of Lords in 1910 had American wives.  American money probably kept the stately homes of England going for another generation.

For many of these American brides, however, a title really didn't make up for the horrors of English country life.  They may have been living in an exclusive Tudor mansion, but it would be freezing cold with no hot water and only the most rudimentary sanitation and electricity.  One heiress, Lady Camoys, wrote home to her mother that she hadn't taken her furs off all winter even when she went to bed.  And English society was not exactly welcoming to these rich newcomers: Imagine Kim Kardashian marrying Prince Harry today and you get the general idea of the suspicion and disdain that these women encountered. 

The American Heiress has all the elements of a fascinating read. There's beautiful, headstrong, and young Cora Cash - the sole heiress of the Golder Miller fortune. She's been described as the richest woman in the world and it's said that every slice of bread in America is made from flour that her father's company has processed. While Cora's daily life is dominated by her socially ambitious mother. she has enough spirit and beauty to dream of marrying for love.

Her first choice is a young Knickerbocker whose family looks down on her new wealth. After a glittering coming out in New York, Cora's mother hires Mrs. Wyndham to arrange Cora's trip to London. As she mingles with London society, Cora has a chance encounter with a Duke. Romance, a wedding, and a whole new life open up for Cora. But there is much hidden below the surface and while Cora works at becoming a success, she discovers that her husband has dark secrets of his own.

I had very high hopes for The American Heiress and found the beginning portion rather disappointing. While Daisy Goodwin paints a clear picture of life in New York during the Gilded Age - and the extravagant details are based on some of the lavish lifestyles of that period - the characters didn't really grab me at the start. But the book picks up considerably when Cora arrives in England. She becomes a much more interesting and sympathetic character as she faces snobbery and expectations of London's the complex social hierarchy. By the time that Cora's fallen in love with her Duke, I was thoroughly engrossed in The American Heiress.

If you enjoy novels about the Gilded Age and Regency England, I recommend this fun, period romance.

ISBN-10: 0312658656 - Hardcover $25.99
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (June 21, 2011), 480 pages.
Review copy provided through Amazon Vine and by the publisher.

About the Author:
Daisy Goodwin is a leading television producer in the U.K. She has published several poetry anthologies, and was chair of the judging panel of the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.  She and her husband, an ABC TV executive, have two daughters and live in London.  The American Heiress: A Novel is her first novel.

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