I’ve been fan of Beatriz Williams’ novels ever since I read A Hundred Summers a few years ago. In her latest book, A Certain Age, ritzy jazz-age melodrama is layered against murder and the dark assignations of a gossip columnist in a story of erotic obsession inspired by Richard Strauss’s
Der Rosenkavalier. Williams combines the lyrical, bittersweet themes of that opera and the inherent message of the bourgeoning women’s independence movement to explore the increasingly unrequited endeavors of handsome Captain Octavian Rofrano and his unexpected pursuit of beautiful Sophie Fortescue. In New York in 1922, Sophie has become the object of Jay “Ox” Oschner’s intense desire. A rather oafish social climber and manipulator, Ox courts Sophie with new-age vulgarity, all too aware that his new “thoroughbred filly,” is moneyed and vulnerable and will make the perfect meek and mild wife.
Only nineteen and hailing from the family of one of the wealthiest upper-class New Yorkers, Sophie
has seen little of the world. It’s not surprising that she finds a temporary escape in Jay’s solicited attentions. She’s first entranced by the older man’s style and manners, even more so when she’s confronted with solemn-faced Captain Octavian Rofrano who arrives at her home, posing as a “cavalier” bearing the compliments of the dashing golden haired Ox. But when Rofrano presents Sophie with an engagement ring that rests patiently on a bed of old blue velvet, Sophie
is gobsmacked at her instant, confusing attraction to this gorgeous, mysterious blue-eyed young man.
Sophie can’t deny that Jay is a charming man, but he also comes off as rather desperate and self-satisfied. Jay might be able show Sophie the world and protect her like her
father does, but in her heart Sophie knows that she doesn’t love him. Octavian returns to her side “full of mystery and undiscovered detail.”
He confides in her that during the war, he was a fighter pilot in France. Now his endeavor is to design new airplanes,
and his passions mirror Sophie’s own knack for mechanics. But reality sets in, and Sophie is forced to acknowledge that Jay is, in fact, the man whose hand she has accepted and will become her fiancé.
At the core of the book is the elaborate infatuation between Sophie and Octavian, a love story with a comical spirit and a fatalistic urgency.
What gives the novel gravitas is the broader context of the setting and the irreconcilable nature of the American dream in the 1920s. Much of this is eloquently articulated by beautiful Theresa Marshall of Fifth Avenue. Therese is Jay’s sister and
married to Sylvo, a wealthy New York industrialist. Therese’s first-person narration tells of how she seduced Octavian when she met him one night at a Fourth of July party. Since then, she’s transformed “the boy by the swimming pool” into a fully grown, sexually voracious lover. Dark, swarthy, and dreamlike, Octavian is at first bound to the irresistible Therese but also repelled by the terror of their imminent discovery. Octavian is happy to cater to Therese’s arrangement of secretive trysts twice a week in their little love nest above a carriage house about a hundred miles from the city.
The novel unfolds in tour-de-force of erotic tension, inevitably leading to a collision course that will expose the hypocrisy of the rich and their falsity of love. With Octavian’s ambition spurred by his passion for Sophie, he begins to neglect Therese (“isn’t it enough that you’ve got me revolving around you like a loon”). While Therese’s philandering husband drops a bombshell that he’s still carrying on carelessly with his grasping mistress, Jay continues to fruitlessly endear himself to Sophie even as Sophie tries desperately to lay claim to her independence, at first from Jay and then from her overprotective father and sister. Sophie
gets caught up in the jet-set trappings of her best friend, Julie Schuyler, a flighty society girl who always seems to know where the skeletons lurk in the closet. Julie sees the advantages of being an independent working girl, something that is quite new for the time. Sophie confides to Julie that she wants to apply for a job in an engineer’s office.
Manhattan City’s brawling horns and flashing lights reflect the insistent urge for people to get to another place “in such a hurry, yet going nowhere.” The train chugs inexorably out of the station and sets everything in motion: Sophie’s trip to Octavian’s childhood Greenwich home; the grand party at Therese’s apartment to mark Sophie and Jay’s official engagement; and rich, beautiful, clever Therese herself, who tells us that at age twenty, she had the world at her feet. Williams makes us sympathize with Therese’s growing predicament as she begins to notice that her “boy’s” attentions are being temporarily diverted to an innocent, unspoiled and affianced girl of only nineteen.
Framing her narrative around a court case where a verdict of guilty is found on a charge of first-degree murder, Williams writes from
both Therese and Sophie's points of view, bringing a larger-than life, three-dimensional quality to the Fortescue family’s scandal as well as the more sexual aspects of Therese and Octavian’s affair. Although the ending verges into
Keystone Kops territory, the strength of Williams' treatment is her lyrical prose and her ability to write pitch-perfect dialogue while also portraying the upper-class mannerisms of the period.