I really enjoyed reading The American Heiress. It’s light, entertaining historical fiction about a period of thirty years in the late 1800s during which billionaire American families sought the prestige of English and other European aristocracy by matching up their daughters with cash-poor dukes and princes, whose castles and estates were very much in need of American money.
Cora Cash has a domineering mother who is bent on marrying her daughter to English nobility. Cora is, of course, beautiful and well-educated and it doesn’t take long for her to meet Ivo Maltravers – the Ninth Duke of Wareham.
He’s older, she’s still in her teens and their playful banter reminds me of the conversations between Rhett and Scarlett, Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre and Maxim de Winter and Rebecca. It’s been done before, but I never get tired of it. Jojo Moyes does the same thing with Will Traynor and Lou Clark in Me Before You, with a very different setting and plot.
I think Daisy Goodwin does a great job describing this period of time, first with the American elite in Newport and New York, their mansions, exorbitant spending and class distinctions between old money and new money, and later with a different set of the upper class in England. Cora may understand how things work in her American world, but once she crosses the Atlantic, she faces a confusing set of hierarchies and a completely different way of life. She makes a great deal of mistakes and steps into a few traps. We see just where she’s headed, but we can’t stop her!
There are plenty of descriptions of fashion and what it was like to be wealthy in America and England during the Gilded Age. Goodwin describes Cora’s trousseau in great detail, which includes wedding corsets with solid gold clasps. She has based these details on the actual trousseau of Consuelo Vanderbilt who married Charles-Spencer Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough.
Goodwin also incorporates artists and portraits in the story, with amusing twists and misunderstandings. I especially like her character, Louvain, the painter with the bad reputation because he’s a social outsider with a great deal of power over the women he paints. I also like the author’s technique of narrating – third-person – through a variety of characters. Some of them are anonymous, like the girl from the hat shop, but the things they see add important details to the story. This has also been done before, but it works.
Cora eventually grows into her English role and learns how to swallow humiliation with noble grace. She learns how to direct butlers, maids, cooks and footmen with authority, a group whose loyalties are rooted in the way things have always been done, when Ivo’s mother ran the castle. But is this new poise and confidence enough to handle what could be the ultimate betrayal? Loose ends hang until the very last pages, and then they tie up quite nicely.
The American Heiress is a smartly-written, entertaining story. I don’t think it’s meant to be a scholarly account of this time period. I enjoyed reading it exactly because it was light, but not cheesy. And, although it was somewhat predictable, I thought it was tons of fun!
Do you think everything you read should be heavy and educational? I don’t!
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