It's 1928, the middle of Prohibition, the Roaring Twenties and the era of flappers, a seemingly wild and giddy time where licentiousness laughs and thumbs its nose against the strict convention and staid morals of much of the era. Laura Kelley is just nineteen. She works in the dress shop that her parents started in the sleepy little town of Austerlitz, NY. She's generally a good daughter, but she has one secret. She's in love with a man she cannot have. And as the novel opens, she sneaks out of the home she shares with her widower father and her younger sister to meet this man and to see the scandalous Ziegfeld Follies. The evening is magical and Laura is swept up in it. But it has repercussions that last forever.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, who preferred to be called Vincent, is living nearby to Austerlitz at Steepletop House. Neither she nor her husband cares to hide the parties and debauchery that take place there from the judgmental town, bringing friends and lovers to their mountaintop retreat as often as the muse requires. Vincent is in search of a new lover who will inspire her words and enflame her body. She finds such a lover in a young poet named George Dillon but he is neither as compliant nor as accommodating to the famous poet as her previous lovers have been.
A couple of years further on in the midst of the Great Depression, Laura is struggling to support her daughter in the dress shop and is still keeping the baby's father's name secret. She has retreated from the town as much as the town has branded her for her indiscretion. Vincent glimpses Laura on the day that her sister marries. She is standing to the side of the bride and groom with a lonely and melancholy expression on her face and she captures the imagination of the poet, who is still struggling with her lover's intransigence. Eventually introduced to Laura's sister Marie and her husband, Everette, a rising politician, Millay invites them to Steepletop to one of her famous parties where she intentionally entices Everette into her bed, an invitation he does not refuse. And with this action, she forges a bond between herself and Laura, one built on anger and loyalty but also ultimately desperation and creative desire.
Robuck has drawn Millay as a sensuous, extravagant, demanding woman. She lives a bohemian life without care for the mores of society but she feels deeply and is easily wounded. She loves with her whole heart but can be unthinking and capriciously cruel. She is a study in opposites. Laura, on the other hand, is a mostly conventional woman whose only transgression ends up defining her. She dreams of more but is bound first by the opinion of the town and then by her loyalty and love for her family, so she pushes that dream down under the more prosaic need to feed and clothe herself and her daughter. Her capacity for love is boundless but she has been damaged by her secret lover's silent disavowal of her and their daughter, losing the ability to trust openly and learning to fear the withholding of forgiveness.
Robuck has taken two very different, and yet in some ways similar, "fallen beauties" whose lives intersected in interesting ways and contrasted them with each other. Even the structure of the novel reflects that contrast, narrated in the first person first by Laura and then by Vincent in each chapter. This gives the reader insight into what drives each character and how they view not only their own lives but those of the people around them. And it showcases both the cost of convention and the cost of creative freedom. Robuck has done a good job of describing and detailing what it cost women in particular to live in the 1920s and 30s. She's created a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Millay, who despite her oftentimes selfish and unthinking excesses flouting society's tight rules, was actually a fragile and emotionally insecure genius who craved love and devotion. Although each woman's back story was necessary, especially to show Laura's fierce determination to avoid Millay and then extreme reluctance to do as bidden despite her desperate financial straits, in terms of narrative pace, it took too long for the women to meet. Once they did though, the pacing picked up and although the reader knew that Laura must eventually ignore her scruples and make the luscious creations asked of her, the tension of the interactions between Laura and Vincent and how their relationship would eventually play out was compelling. A tale of creativity, redemption, and convention, readers intrigued by Millay and her scandalous lifestyle as well as those who are fascinated by the cost that society extracts on those who ignore its rules will quite enjoy this historical fiction.
website, her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, take a look at her historical fiction blog, Muse, or read her contributions to the fiction blog Writer Unboxed. And look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.
Would you like to win your very own copy of this book?
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Please be sure to check out the other stops on the blog tour for more reviews and additional chances to enter to win a giveaway copy of Fallen Beauty:
February 17: A Patchwork of Books and Maurice On Books
February 18: Jenn’s Bookshelves, Burton Book Review, and Leah's Thoughts
February 19: Great New Books
February 20: Chick Lit Plus and Girls Just Reading
February 21: Book Dilettante, Chefdruck: French, and Bookfoolery
February 22: Entertainment Realm and Two Classy Chics
February 24: Laura's Review Bookshelf and Crystal Book Reviews
February 25: Literally Jen and Confessions of a Book Addict
February 26: Literate Housewife and LitChat
February 27: Anita Loves Books, To Read or Not To Read, and Kayla's Reads and Reviews
February 28: Silver's Reviews, A Novel Review, and The Write Teacher(s)
March 3: Alison's Book Marks
March 4: Biblio File, Sincerely Stacie, Minding Spot, and Bookalicious Mama
March 5: Teresa's Reading Corner, Book Addict Katie, and So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
March 6: Entomology of a Bookworm, Steph The Bookworm, and Kritters Ramblings
March 7: My 5 Monkeys and Traveling With T
Berkley/NAL for sending me a copy of the book for review.