For some reason, we never tire of salacious gossip about the well-to-do. Royals, presidents, the scions of the Upper East Side — they’re all fodder for our wildest dreams and most scathing insults. This week’s book club features fictional, fictionalized, and non-fictional representations of the privileged and those caught in their orbit, or trying to live in the midst of their bizarre world.
1. Mrs. by Caitlin Macy ($27): Three years ago, Wednesday Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue took a scathing anthropological look at the competitiveness and tribalism of women living on New York’s Upper East Side, and the trials they go through to ensure a place in the pecking order for themselves and their children. Macy’s novel picks up where Martin left off, with a story centered on Grace Hogan, perpetual semi-outsider to this world, and the other women with children at St. Timothy’s preschool. Grace isn’t as moneyed as the other women; her four-year-old child Mary is at the school on an intellectual scholarship. She does, though, have childhood ties to perhaps the most fascinating, ethereal one of the bunch, Philippa Lye.
Philippa, the woman everyone wants to know, “kept herself apart unless she needed something. Her children were the third generation of Skinkers to attend the school; their father, Jed, ran the bank; their paternal grandmother, Laura Winifred ‘Winnie’ Skinker, a frequently photographed society matron, was on the board at Cleary, the most bluestocking of the Upper East Side girls’ schools, where her namesake, little Laura, was now in second grade. Even the bank played its part in the lore; rather than occupying a few stultifying, fluorescent-lit stories in a midtown office tower, Skinker, Farr was housed in a Beaux-arts mansion of West Fifty-Fourth that the Skinkers themselves owned. Stone gargoyles instead of elevator banks greeted the potential client, and the old Mr. Skinker, now deceased, was said to have named them all.”
Things threaten to come tumbling down for the ultra-cool Philippa when Gwen stumbles on a juicy secret about her from their past that may have a connection to the case Gwen’s husband is tracking at the US Attorney’s Office. Not only that, but there’s a new Mrs. in town: Minnie Curtis isn’t ashamed of her poor upbringing in Spanish Harlem, but now that she’s wealthy, she’s pushed herself into the wary circle. Unfortunately, her husband may also factor into the investigation. Mrs. explores the scheming machinations and anxieties of upper-class society; fun to visit, but you might not want to live there despite the perks.
2. White Houses by Amy Bloom ($27): B + C Book Club has already covered a biographic version of the Eleanor Roosevelt-Lorena Hickok love story, but there’s always room for another, especially this fictionalized story told from Hickok’s point of view. Lorena, or “Hick,” and Eleanor came from vastly different lives; Eleanor grew up “proper,” born into a life of privilege and power, yet was more concerned with her legacy as a political activist than comfortable in the spotlight. Lorena grew up poor, with a brief foray into the circus (which Bloom explores) before her journalistic career with the Associated Press brought her in contact with the First Lady.
Bloom centers her tale around the death of Eleanor’s husband. Years before, Lorena had found a berth at the White House and the two had developed a longstanding intimate relationship, but it ended with a sudden split when Eleanor asked her to leave. At the end of April 1945, however, Eleanor is bereft and adrift, and she asks Lorena to return.
“We love the attentiveness of powerful people, because it’s such a pleasant, gratifying surprise, but Eleanor was not a grand light shining briefly on the lucky little people. She reached for the soul of everyone who spoke to her, every day. She bowed her head toward yours, as if there was nothing but the time and necessary space for two people to briefly love each other,” Lorena says. A detailed, tender but realistic love story, White Houses depicts the lesser-known aspects of Lorena’s life, and the complexities of a relationship seen from slightly outside the lens of fame.
3. Wallis In Love: The Untold Life of the Duchess of Windsor, the Woman Who Changed the Monarchy by Andrew Morton ($28): Who fascinates us more than England’s royal family? They live a life firmly entrenched in the public eye, full of decadence but also stringent rules. Many people desperately want to be royals, and would do almost anything to achieve that goal. Many more wonder, who would give up that life? It’s no surprise that the story of Edward VIII, who gave up his crown for the woman he loved, is so fascinating. More details of the relationship between Wallis Simpson and the man who wouldn’t be king are revealed in Morton’s biography.
Morton proceeds on the premise, claimed by Simpson, that neither of her previous marriages were consummated, leaving them annullable and not subject to the rule that required Edward to abdicate. Simpson had a particular narrative about herself, but this is contradicted by the evidence Morton provides, including writing from a number of her friends, such as Katherine and Herman Rogers. It’s not a particularly flattering portrait of either member of the couple; Simpson is shown as a user, self-centered, and often cruel, desiring a life she was never going to get. Edward appears to not want what he had.
“Wallis was capable of love, passion, and desire – but not always with the men she married,” Morton writes. “She liked to say that hers was a simple story. It was nothing of the kind. Wallis was an endlessly complex and intriguing woman, beguiling, infuriating. There is no plaque outside her Baltimore home at 212 East Biddle Street in once fashionable Mount Vernon, but there are those who believe she should be remembered with a statue in the famously unoccupied fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in central London for saving the British from her pro-Nazi royal husband at a critical moment in their island saga as they faced Hitler’s eager battalions, war-weary and alone. This is the story of a most extraordinary American who, single-handed, changed the history of the British royal family and arguably the destiny of the British people.” We’d really like to know her secret.
What books satisfy your need for gossip? Tag us in your next revelatory read @BritandCo.
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