September Book Club

by Deborah Rogers – 

A world of extreme wealth and inflexible social rules was the setting of our September read. In her historical fiction The Social Graces, Renée Rosen explores the “Gilded Age” in a New York awash with money, and the developing conflict between the “Knickerbockers” with their family wealth, and the new money of the railroad and business tycoons. The social conflict was demonstrated through two central characters, Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt. The publisher helpfully included a large family tree for both the Astors and the Vanderbilts helping the reader navigate the family dynamics presented in the story.

It was a time period and setting that few of our members had much knowledge of and we appreciated the depth of research that the author clearly undertook. The descriptions of exquisite dresses, extravagant balls and elaborate architecture sent many of us off on our own research missions looking up photos of the people and places described. It truly was a world of excess, and Rosen’s detailed descriptions created a very strong backdrop for the story.

Over the three decades that the book spans, starting in 1876, we see a changing world. Our discussion focused on the restrictive roles that women were limited to, and how inegalitarian New York society was. While the men were Empire-building, their wives and daughters were entirely excluded from the decision making. Despite all the glamour and glitz the lives of the women in the book were tedious. We discussed whether the author’s very detailed and repetitive descriptions were a way of demonstrating that tedium to the reader.

The flaw we found with this book was that the characters were so unlikable. They all exhibited behaviour that was petty and childish, and their preoccupation with social status and excluding others from entering their world, made them entirely unsympathetic. We were disappointed that the big social movements of the time were largely absent from the narrative, presenting a curiously flat version of the past. However, reading the book created an opportunity for reflection on the way we continue to equate money and success, and our own modern versions of this desire for exclusivity such as the Hollywood “A-list” with their Met Balls, private jets and bejewelled outfits.

For our meeting next month we are reading Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting by Clare Pooley. Join us on October 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Sidney/North Saanich Library. Don’t forget to sign up to the Book Club mailing list
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