Gilded Age, by Claire McMillan
by Claire McMillan
I’m sure I picked up this one because it’s set in Cleveland, not too far from where I currently reside. Since it is set amid Cleveland high society, not something I am all that familiar with, I knew I would probably recognize little, aside from specific landmarks and locations. I was right about that, although I’m sure someone in the know about such things would have recognized a great deal more about the subtle and the not-so-subtle nuances of Cleveland society. This being said, I found Gilded Age to be an engaging, cautionary tale about societies in general and the expectations that are placed on the people “lucky” enough to be members of the moneyed social scene.
A contemporary House of Mirth is how Claire McMillan’s debut novel is being billed by the publisher. Quite an accomplishment for a first novel, and a well executed one at that. McMillan has done a fine job of updating Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart in the form of Eleanor Hart. As the novel opens, Ellie has just returned to Cleveland, where she grew up, after a failed marriage to a high society New York playboy.
Gilded Age, like The Great Gatsby, is told by a narrator who is on the periphery of the story, rather than fully engaged in it. Unlike in The Great Gatsby, however, this narrator is nameless, though no less committed to telling the main character’s story with a passionate and sympathetic, if distant, voice. The narrator was Ellie’s childhood bff, though they’ve drifted apart over the years and moved on to very different lives (though both are still firmly planted in high society). There are the parties one needs to make an appearance at, and the scandals which occur either at the party or that are discussed before, during and after. Not surprisingly, the double standard is alive and well in Cleveland society, and Ellie gets burned by it on several occasions.
While the narrator wants to sympathize with Ellie’s downfall, she is happily married and pregnant with her first child—not a good time to be associating with a woman who is not only fresh out of rehab, but who is also, quite literally, digging her own societal grave. That is not to say she doesn’t feel sympathy, she just has to be careful who witnesses her acting on it.
Ellie’s story is a sad but, unfortunately, familiar one. Everyone wants to be friends with her and the invitations abound—as long as she plays by their rules. But when Ellie tries to march to the beat of her own drum, backs turn, noses go up, and invitations dry up. Being different, as we all know, often means being lonely. Clearly, loneliness is something Ellie–who had always been the life of the party, turning heads when she walked into a room, making everyone loosen up and enjoy–is not at all used to. It’s the age-old dilemma of where does one turn when seemingly the whole world turns against you.
Yes, Gilded Age is a lesson in morality, but it’s a well-written, entertaining one that is sure to hold your interest no matter where you fall on the social ladder.