By Claire McMillan
Simon & Schuster, $25.00, 244 pages
Eleanor Hart is a beautiful, young, socialite who leaves Cleveland for a suitable husband in New York City only to return years later as a divorcée with one goal: a new wealthy husband. Difficulties arise as the expected behavior from Cleveland society matrons chafes Ellie’s free spirit. Poor choices are made and things end badly. If this sounds familiar, it should as Gilded Age is Claire McMillan’s retelling of the iconic The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.
McMillan does a marvelous job of recreating Wharton’s world in the framework of modern times. Where letters and lingering looks sufficed now we have email and sexting. While these might seem easy transitions to make, it is McMillan’s deft touch with the complexities of male-female relationships that still exist today that give Gilded Age real depth. What is acceptable for men is damning for women. Ellie misses these cues and it is part of her downfall.
As a stand-alone novel this works in every sense. It is only when compared to Wharton’s work that it is harder to see Ellie as a truly tragic character. Unlike Lily Bart in The House of Mirth she has choices but what she wants is the easiest path, the one that requires only her looks as payment. The availability of options and the decision not to pursue them lessens Eleanor’s emotional impact on the reader, even though the end result is the same. Still, Gilded Age is a well written, good read with much to say about today’s society and its norms.
Reviewed by Catherine Gilmore