Book Review: The Second Mrs. Astor: A Novel of the Titanic by Shana Abé

The Second Mrs. Astor: A Novel of the Titanic
Shana Abé

For fans of historical fiction, here’s an engaging story about Madeleine Talmadge Force and her brief marriage to Colonel John Jacob Astor IV, America’s (and maybe the world’s) richest man at the time, cut short when they boarded the British passenger liner Titanic. In just two years, Madeleine would become a young bride, a widow and mother to a baby boy.

In 1910, Madeleine Force was only seventeen when John Astor caught her performance as Ophelia in a Junior League summer production of Hamlet. The two were immediately smitten with each other and their courtship began, despite the twenty-nine-year age difference! The world knew all about Astor and the scandal surrounding his divorce from his first wife, Ava. The ever-present press didn’t seem to bother Astor, but Madeleine struggled being in the public eye and felt vulnerable to their gossip.

The couple married in 1911 and, to escape the press, embarked on an extended honeymoon to Europe and Egypt. On their return, they boarded the Titanic in France and braced themselves for the paparazzi in New York. When the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean and began to sink, her husband helped Madeleine, now pregnant, climb into a lifeboat with her maid and nurse. Astor stayed back and died when the ship sank.

I enjoyed reading this highly researched story which is loaded with details about the fashions, social lives and opulent lifestyles of the rich, including the more subtle dynamics between these wealthy people. Although the press hounded the newly married couple, high society snubbed them, and they had few close friends. One friend was Margaret Brown, a former shop girl who had become rich from mining investments in Colorado. She was also a passenger on the ship and later known as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a reference to her efforts to rescue other passengers. I also liked reading about Madeleine’s family, especially her sister, Katherine, and about Astor’s son, Vincent, who was just one year older than Madeleine. He hated her for marrying his father and blamed his death on Madeleine.

Of course the drama abord the ship was also interesting and now I want to rewatch the movie Titanic, as I know many of the characters in the movie are also in this book!

Although Madeleine and her son were well provided for after her husband’s death, Vincent inherited the bulk of his father’s estate. I enjoyed looking these people up and finding out what happened to them later. Madeleine remarried and divorced two times and had two more children with her second husband, William Karl Dick. She died at age forty-six of a heart condition. You can really go down the rabbit hole researching these people. I liked that the author included websites and other resources in the Acknowledgements section for readers who want to research more. That would be me!

I think the author did a great job describing these people and their relationships to each other. I enjoyed reading their dialogues and the author’s interpretations of their thoughts and emotions. I recommend The Second Mrs. Astor to readers who like historical fiction and stories about a seemingly distant period of time because of how different our world is now.

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