March 4, 2014
“Without sin, can we know beauty? Can we fully appreciate the summer without the winter? No, I am glad to suffer so I can feel the fullness of our time in the light.”
Upstate New York, 1928. Laura Kelley and the man she loves sneak away from their judgmental town to attend a performance of the scandalous Ziegfeld Follies. But the dark consequences of their night of daring and delight reach far into the future.…
That same evening, Bohemian poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and her indulgent husband hold a wild party in their remote mountain estate, hoping to inspire her muse. Millay declares her wish for a new lover who will take her to unparalleled heights of passion and poetry, but for the first time, the man who responds will not bend completely to her will.…
Two years later, Laura, an unwed seamstress struggling to support her daughter, and Millay, a woman fighting the passage of time, work together secretly to create costumes for Millay’s next grand tour. As their complex, often uneasy friendship develops amid growing local condemnation, each woman is forced to confront what it means to be a fallen woman…and to decide for herself what price she is willing to pay to live a full life.
I was first introduced to Erika Robuck with 2012’s Hemingway’s Girl, a historical fiction that took readers deep into the life of Ernest Hemingway, showing him through the eyes of the American writer’s maid. In 2013, I thoroughly enjoyed Robuck’s Call Me Zelda, focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fascinating wife, Zelda.
Now, in 2014, Erika Robuck revisits the glamorous Twenties in Fallen Beauty. The novel alternates first-person narratives from Laura Kelley, a single mother cloaked in scandal, and the great poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose marital values did not align with the members of her community.
Laura’s story reminded me a great deal of Hester Prynne from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In a time when single parents were shunned, Laura chose love. She brought her daughter into the world at such a young age, knowing that their life would not be easy. Additionally, she also chose not to expose the identity of the father of her child, nor rely on him in any way for financial or emotional support. For most of the novel, young Grace’s father’s identity is concealed, though certain Robuck’s readers will begin to form opinions as to whom he might be.
Here is where I confess I have never been all that interested in reading poetry. I am familiar with the name Edna St. Vincent Millay (whose friends called her Vincent), but as far as I know I’ve never read anything she’s penned. Thanks to Robuck, I now have some insight into a fascinating woman who did not let society define how she lived her life, but let her heart and body drive her.
The relationship between Laura and Edna was pretty intense. Laura had prejudices toward Edna, who caused marital problems between Laura’s sister and her husband. Edna, however, was only interested in Marie (Laura’s sister) as a way to get to Laura. Unlike all of Edna’s other conquests, Laura doesn’t give in to Edna’s plans for her, and instead befriends her.
Most of the time, I really liked Laura and felt badly for her. Laura is judged so harshly and treated cruelly by the upstanding women in her small town, but in the same way that she is judged, Laura also judges Edna…at the beginning of their tentative friendship. While Edna’s way of living isn’t one I agreed with (and obviously Laura didn’t, either) I would have thought Laura would have shown her more compassion since she understood what it was to be a “fallen beauty,” too.
Erika Robuck has written another fantastic novel; I’m so glad I read it and learned something about one of my favorite time periods, as well as getting to know about a historical figure I knew nothing about. The ending of Fallen Beauty wraps everything up beautifully, and even had me gasping in a few places as certain things were revealed about several characters. This is a book you won’t want to miss; it’ll also be the perfect read for your next book club.
Fallen Beauty releases on March 4, 2014. US residents are invited to enter my giveaway, courtesy of the publisher, for a copy of the book! Fill out the rafflecopter form below. And remember: the more tasks you complete, the better your odds at winning!