Friday, February 7, 2014

Book Review - Daisy Goodwin's The American Heiress

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: August 1st, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 468 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Cora Cash is the wealthiest heiress that Newport, New York, and possibly the world has ever seen. Not even the son of that historic family, the Van Der Leydens, is good enough for Cora, or so her mother keeps telling her. Mrs. Cash wants her daughter to rise up above the title the Americans have given her, the Golden Miller's Granddaughter. Mrs. Cash wants what only their new money can get overseas, a "new" title, and the prestige that comes with it. Taking Cora and her horses to England on the family's ship the SS Aspen, she is soon nestled in the bosom of the English Aristocracy. Her rumored equestrian skills secure her an invite to the home of Lord Bridport, Sutton Veney, where he is master of the famous Myddleton Hunt. The day of the hunt will change Cora's life forever. Her seat on her horse is impeccable, several people even comment that she could be mistaken for being English. Yet separated from the pack she falls off her horse in a copse of trees and is rescued by a young man.

The young man happens to be Ivo, the Duke of Wareham, whose estate, Lulworth, Cora happened to stumble into. Ivo has been shut away from the world since the passing of both his father and elder brother and the remarriage of his mother, making her a double duchess. Cora's mother couldn't have arranged a more felicitous meeting had she spent months plotting and scheming. The Duke is in desperate need of money, which her daughter Cora will be glad to give him in exchange for his hand. To Cora's mother it's all a business transaction, but to Cora, it's surprisingly an affair of the heart, which she realizes when Ivo proposes and she accepts out of love. But dreaming of being a Duchess and the reality are two separate things. The English way of life bears little resemblance to the life she has known. Secret codes of conduct, drafty houses, servants gossiping, Cora didn't know that this is what she was getting into. Add to that Ivo's ex, Charlotte Beauchamp. Charlotte seems to think of taking Cora down a peg in Ivo's eyes as her new favorite game. Can Cora figure out this new world she's thrust herself into, or will she do a flit.

The American Heiress isn't the most deep or philosophical of stories. The plot is pretty predictable, but somehow, the way the story is told and the ease of the storytelling rise it above the mundane and run of the mill and make it a wonderful read that I wanted to devour in one sitting. What makes the book so refreshing is that the story clips along at a great pace. We are never bogged down within the mire of effusive detail or unnecessary information, excepting the end house party which needed a little temporal help. Cora has her coming out ball and then the next chapter she's getting ready for her first hunt in England. Other authors might have documented the entire journey across the Atlantic and Cora's daily routine of walking her horses on the steamship, but thankfully not Daisy Goodwin. We also get the story from multiple characters, from Cora, then from her black ladies maid Bertha, occasionally Cora's mother, add to these multiple viewpoints from characters that aren't even integral parts of the narrative, insignificant characters like the millinery girl who helped Cora once and is now our conduit for Cora's wedding, from outside the church on a street in New York City, and there's a spark to the book that I can't really describe. Perhaps it is because we have more in common with that girl on the street corner and therefore connect with her voyeuristic interest in the story, but for whatever reason you want to give, it just seriously makes this book work.

As for Cora, the buccaneer who actually fell in love, it's almost like this is the promised Downton Abbey prequel, her name is even Cora!  You connect to Cora despite her being everything you're not and a little spoiled to boot. In my mind she's more then a little like Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl. You like her but you're not quite sure why. I was actually worried about her parties and hoping she wouldn't make a mistake or social faux pas and therefore show herself to be a gauche American. She tries so hard to fit and fails or stumbles time and time again I just wanted her to be picked up by Ivo and cherished. And on the downstairs side of the narrative, we have Bertha. Bertha is also like Cora in that she is not fully likable. She takes care of her spoiled mistress, but all the while looking out for her own future with thinking of the resale value of clothes and gloves, or how she can parlay an accidental windfall to her advantage. She's a schemer, but also devoutly loyal. By these two main characters having such diametrically apposing characteristics they become more human, more real, because people don't make sense in reality.

Yet beneath all these trappings of wealth and luxury, Daisy Goodwin is bringing up serious subjects within the confines of an upstairs, downstairs narrative. There is the most obvious, the us versus them mentality that comes between servants and masters, but there is also the us versus them of American versus English, black versus white. Poor Bertha is an outcast in many senses, being black, American, and a servant, she really doesn't fit in anywhere, and therefore those misanthropes among the readers, me included, connect to her plight. But there's also how different Cora and Ivo are. Ivo can not handle the celebrity of wealth that is second nature to Cora growing up in the states, while Cora can't grasp Ivo's reserve or his shame at how she will willingly thrown money at a situation. It's these opposing dynamics that make the book so much more then a love story. And in the end, was it really a love story? The ending was a little too open for my liking...


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