Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Luxe by Anna Godbersen

Gossip Girl meets The Age of Innocence. Except that there's not really any Age of Innocence here.

I tried with this book, because my sister recommended it as enjoyable fluff. I tried to think of it as light and fluffy and inconsequential, a book to read as a break from heavier things. It didn't work. I know that I have biases as a history grad student. But I don't demand absolute historical accuracy, as long as it's a good story, well told. This was beyond the pale.

First of all, when you start your fricking book with a quote from The Age of Innocence, one would think that you had absorbed a little bit from that book, other than thinking it would be hilarious to cast Edith Wharton as a dotty old aunt with much of the history of Ellen Olenska. Also, when said quote is the very famous one about "the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage," etc, etc, then you would have to have characters who ever, ever, ever placed face above personal interest. Who were in any way worried about scandal. Who tried not to commit scenes.

Apparently, "scenes" and "scandal" don't include vomiting in public, public female drunkenness, or every single young woman character sneaking out (often through the streets) for a rendezvous with their secret lovers. No one is ever concerned that they'll be caught. There are no repercussions.

To add to that, every young man of the upper crust of New York society is sleeping freely with young women of the same class, and not sexually harassing the maids or going to prostitutes? Yeah, right.

This is what really drives me crazy - it commits one of the two cardinal historical fallacies. One is to see the people of the past as utterly alien, consumed by crazy superstitions and irrationalities, people we can barely understand. The second, and the one to which The Luxe falls prey, is that the past is populated by people who are EXACTLY like us, just in different clothes.

Neither is true. The past is both alien and familiar, and both the strangeness and the familiarity crop up in absolutely unexpected places.

So, jet set mores of our time period are not the same as the upper crust mores of Gilded Age New York. Sure, I'm sure there was premarital sex going on, but it was much more likely to be outside of one's own class (if you were male.) And there may have been premarital sex going on within a class, but it would have been bloody discreet, and very dangerous. Nothing had repercussions in this book. I didn't even believe the threat of financial ruin, and in the end, it didn't matter to the characters either. Not that it happened - it was just brushed off.

But mostly, I just hated the characters. They were self-absorbed, petty, and solipsistic. I would have hated them in a modern setting and I loathe them as supposed representations of a different time period as well.

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