Thirty years after the Civil War, there became a stark divide between the incredibly wealthy and the nation’s poor. And no place showed the differences between the haves and have-nots than New York City in the late 19th century. And within this group of wealthy families, there was another divide. It was between the old monied, Knickerbocker families and the nouveau riche. The queen of high society was Caroline Astor. A woman so powerful and well-known that her calling card simply read: The Mrs. Astor. But times were changing and a new group of rich families were emerging and no one was wealthier and more determined to enter society than Alva, wife of William K. Vanderbilt.
In The Social Graces, author Renée Rosen, author of the wonderful Park Avenue Summer, takes us behind the scenes into the magnificent mansions of New York City and the summer cottages of Newport during the Gilded Age. The book is told from three points of view – Caroline, Alva and “Society”. The rivalry between Caroline and Alva is the central part of this engaging book. First Alva is shut out by Caroline from all social events but through cunning and smarts, she is able to turn the tables and become the woman everyone wants to attend their parties. But this is more than a catty play for a presence at a sumptuous ball. Rosen, through excellent research and her own creativity, helps us understand these women. They were daughters, sisters, mothers and wives. And the wealthy men who they married had all the freedom in the family. Marriages based on love were rare. Affairs were commonplace. Divorce was unheard of. Alva, whose own family had wealth and then lost it all, starts to see the disparity between the life she enjoys and the life most people lead. As the women’s suffrage movement grows, Alva has an opportunity to show her support. Caroline too has to evolve.
As a fan of historical fiction, The Social Graces was a very enjoyable book. It’s a light read that will keep you googling to see photos of the people, the homes, the balls, the gowns, the jewelry. Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the end which details where Rosen separates fact from fiction.
Many thanks to Berkley / Penguin Publishing Group, Edelweiss and the author for the opportunity to read this book in advance of its publication.
Rated 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Publication Date: April 20, 2021.
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