Friday, May 20, 2011

Musings: The American Heiress

The American Heiress
Daisy Goodwin's The American Heiress is a book that I was both excited and nervous to read.  It is full of those ridiculous accolades books these days get- comparing it to the works of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton and probably any other author who writes about the English class system.  This generally sets off warning bells in my head because well, quite frankly, there aren't many people who can write like Jane Austen (or Edith Wharton, I presume, though I've never read her myself).  It's putting a lot of pressure on Goodwin to compare her to those two.

There were other blurbs, too, saying that The American Heiress was a "guilty pleasure" of a read, and that set off all sorts of warning bells.  Jane Austen and Edith Wharton aren't really guilty pleasures reads to me.  I think more of Phillippa Gregory and the bodice-rippers as guilty pleasures.

So it was with some trepidation that I started this book, especially upon learning the heroine's name was Cora Cash (I mean, really?) and that one of the opening scenes is her bullying her maid into teaching her how to kiss properly, complete with a practice run between the two girls.  (Pretty sure Jane Austen would never write that scene!) Cora is the richest heiress in America in the 1890s, and her mother is determined that her daughter will have an English title to go along with all that money.  So they travel to England where Cora has an unfortunate riding accident, is rescued by an attractive man who just happens to be a duke, and spends about a week recovering at his ancestral home, much to her mother's delight.  (Jane Austen definitely already wrote that scene.)  The duke eventually proposes, and Cora begins her life as the Duchess of Rakeham.  But she soon learns that money does not a duchess make, and must deal with the travails of English high society even while she realizes that she doesn't know her husband very well at all.  And her maid?  She's got problems of her own to deal with, too.

I am trying to put my finger on why I didn't love this book, and I think the main reason is that I didn't feel tied to any of the characters.  Cora is the center of the story, but I felt her character was inconsistent.  Her maid, Bertha, kept describing Cora as wasting away as duchess, unsure of her role, unable to gain respect from the servants and unaware of the complicated maneuvers required to succeed in English high society.  But her husband the duke referred to her as light and strong and confident, and it seems like he saw a completely different Cora than Bertha did.  I tend to believe Bertha because, when we're inside Cora's head, she doesn't seem confident at all (except in her money).  She's tired and confused and not at all the bright light of flirtation and youth we met at the beginning of the novel.  Instead, Cora talks about how she has to put on her "brightest American smile" and soldier through difficult situations.  But what is an "American" smile?  How is it different than any other country's smile? 

There were many details introduced in the book that weren't panned out in relation to Cora.  For instance none of the servants showed her any respect.  I think this was probably something a lot of American heiresses faced when they went abroad.  But we don't learn how Cora struggled or dealt with it.  We just see it happen.  Similarly, Cora has a portrait painted that is a little bit risque by English standards.  But we don't really get to see the fallout from that either because she goes off to the countryside and doesn't hear all the gossip.  And all the very real tension between her and her husband about the fact that he gave her a title and she gave him the money- that would be fascinating to learn more about, but aside from one scene in which the two argue, we don't get much depth on that, either.  It seemed to me like the most interesting things about Cora's story were glossed over.

But really, the character that most confused me was her husband, the Duke.  The man seemed to be bipolar, super-attentive and loving one moment and then cold and distant the next.  We never get to know him very well, and so it's hard to sympathize with his character at all.  So the dramatic revelation he gives to Cora and readers falls flat because there's no reason to believe that he feels strongly about anything or that his behavior is likely to change.

To me, this book had a lot of period detail and a promising plot, but the characters didn't do much for me.  I wanted much more from them than they were willing to share with me, and I wanted much more complexity and shades of grey, but what I was given was mostly black and white.  I think this book is much more the escapist read than the Austen-esque one.  Good for a flight or a beach, but not one whose characters are likely to stay with you very long.  If you enjoyed the BBC/PBS airing of Downton Abbey, this book may be a good companion to that mini-series; it's like the prequel, telling the story of a rich American girl trying to adjust to life as an English gentlewoman.  But if you are looking for characters that will move you and stay with you long after you close the last page, I suggest you stick with Jane Austen.

Note:  This review is based on an advanced reader's copy.  I received this book for free to review.


  1. Hmmm. I have seen this book on many shelves here in England and have contemplated it - like you, the conflicting blurbs have thrown me off. Both Austen and Wharton are among my favorite authors and they are far from 'guilty pleasures', words I usually associate with chocolate and books like the Luxe series. So I'm glad to see your review and, actually, relatively pleased that I didn't buy this book. It looks like one I should get from the library instead.

  2. The name Cora Cash just made me roll my eyes up into my head. I don't think this one is for me.

  3. That is too funny about "Cora Cash." Really! And the Duke sounds like an A.H. I think I'll skip this one! :--)

  4. I haven't seen much around about this book, but comparisons to Austen and Wharton would probably really cripple it for me. I don't think that this sounds like a book I would enjoy, for a lot of the reasons that you mention, but mostly because it seems as if the potential it had to be a sort of expose was just ruined by it's bumbling. This was a very interesting review, and on a book that I think I will pass on!

  5. Cora Cash, oh my God. That would be cutesy enough with just the alliteration, but for heaven's sake it's ridiculous if she's an heiress.

    (Was his revelation that he killed his first wife? Because if so I believe this plot was stolen from elsewhere. :p)

  6. Meghan - Yes, Wharton and "guilty pleasure" sharing blurbs makes no sense to me!

    Vivienne - It made me roll my eyes, too. I mean, it was kind of hilarious, but just a bit too much.

    rhapsody - I just didn't understand the duke, at all. I didn't think he loved anyone by the end, personally. Just no reason to believe.

    Zibilee - Yes, I always think it's unfair for an author to be compared to behemoths, especially historical ones. It just sets up all sorts of expectations that perhaps the author never even intended.

    Jenny - Agreed! And no, that was not the revelation, though there was a lot of angst and guilt involved!

  7. Lol, yes when someone says that an author is like JA warning bells ring in my head too. I always wish they hadn't said things like that cos then I'd liked it more

  8. To me the only author who writes like JA is JA.

    And the only author I'd expect to feature a character named Cora Cash and get away with it is Jasper Fforde.

  9. Blodeuedd - Exactly! It just hurts the author more, I think, than helps her.

    Tracy - So true :-) I have only read one Jasper Fforde book, but yes, he could get away with it.

  10. This review totally made me think of Downton Abbey, especially since the main character in this book and the Countess of Grantham share the same first name!

    I don't think I will read this, it sounds like yet another book trying to milk the post-Austen movies craze. Bleh.

    Also, I enjoyed reading Wharton very much. She is excellent at making characters come to life. Try The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth. Be prepared for total 19th century shabby glam depression, complete with laudanum.

  11. The period detail does sound very appealing, but as a character-oriented reader I think I might have issues with this one too. I will indeed stick to Austen (and read more Wharton too).

    PS: I miss you! One day very soon I'll get my act together and send you a proper email :P

  12. Sudha - I KNOW, right. Similarly, not many characters in Downton Abbey were likeable, and there was very little resolution in the first season on multiple plot points, so the similarities are boundless!

    Laundanum was the rich lady's drug addiction. Of COURSE it would show up in Wharton!

    Nymeth - Yay! I would like that very much :-) I read Tender Morsels recently and thought of you. I didn't love it like you did, though it was DEFINITELY food for thought.

  13. I just received a request yesterday for this book and it had everything that you mentioned - a lot of blurbs comparing it to Austen and Wharton and so many of these praises. And not a single synopsis anywhere. I was obviously put off. I might have considered it if none of those advertising gimmicks were there, but...

    Anyways, this book still doesn't sound that great. There does seem to be a lot happening, but confusing characters turns me off.

  14. Not sure if this book would be for me; I do have a copy though.

  15. I may have to at least give this one a try. It sounds like something I might like.


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