Gilded Age
Claire McMillan
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Buy *Gilded Age* by Claire McMillan online

Gilded Age
Claire McMillan
Simon and Schuster
256 pages
June 2012
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Heartbreaking in her beauty, Ellie Hart returns to Cleveland after a bitter divorce in Manhattan. Our unnamed narrator is Ellie’s best and oldest friend and has decided to reconnect with her at a benefit performance of the Cleveland Orchestra. Here a youthful, stylish Ellie shines in a sleeveless black and leather dress of a “chicly conservative cut.” Ellie’s whole manner is designed to give off “an alluring edge of danger." She can’t seem to escape the gossip that she’s arrived fresh from rehab for “unspecified indulgences.”

Inside the tawdry rumor mill that will soon become our eyes and ears to Ellie’s gradual descent into destruction, we watch helpless as Ellie sabotages herself at every turn through a combination of lack of judgment, lack of care, and a great deal of arrogance towards the men who show interest in her, especially slick lawyer Randall Leforte and sexy William Selden. His passionate descriptions of love and death will oddly calm Ellie, given the inferno of scandal that will soon rage around her.

Skewering Ellie’s world with Edith Wharton’s tragic Lily Bart, McMillan makes it apparent that Ellie’s fortuitous decline--characterized by misstep after misstep--will appear both gradual and inevitable. What screams from the pages is Ellie’s complex and contradictory nature along with her desire to be loved and accepted, to have a marriage like the narrator--who at first appears so comfortable with handsome Jim, whose Southern accent and manners make him an “antebellum exotic."

Although Wharton's Lily Bart was well past the age of marriage, it was her only chance to secure a safe and comfortable future. Lily was representative of a time and place when it was typical for a young woman of her type to be saddled with a surfeit of choices and options. Not so Ellie, whose return to Cleveland hints at a new marriage. She must laugh off the attitudes of those around her who see her as an addict and at worse a "selfish, cheating whore." Ellie knows she must bite the bullet, rebuke the excuses of her disastrous first marriage and find a life of her own, even though there’s nothing Clevelanders like more than a person's “whiff of a tattered but glorious past.”

McMillan’s tale unfolds in an airless, gilded world of art openings, salubrious dinner parties, and prestigious weddings. Ellie gasps at love and passion, but fails and eventually suffocates. Though she engenders our sympathy, the narrator views Ellie as primarily “self-concerned and annoyingly juvenile,” a girl who makes no pretense about who she is or what she thinks. Ellie’s lackluster reaction to the news of the narrator’s pregnancy not only brings back memories of their shared childhood--both Ellie’s kindness and her cruelty--but also jumpstarts the darker part of our narrator’s psyche that eventually contributes to Ellie’s doom.

In contemporary Cleveland, a world of moneyed bluebloods, McMillan skillfully unfolds the ramifications of social claustrophobia which Ellie is forced to endure. For their part, when they see Ellie, they recognize a girl "on the make" but also an unsettling reflection of their own lack of scruples, their opportunism, and smugly manipulative smug self-importance. Sadly, now that Ellie is once again part of this group, there is no limit how far she will humiliate herself, even though she’s simply not ruthless enough to get what she says she wants.

Ellie’s descent from sexy socialite to disheveled, desperate woman is disturbing to say the least. Like Lily Bart, Ellie’s decline is all but inevitable. Ellie seems so naive in her dysfunction even when she pays the ultimate price, becoming an unfortunate victim of a cruel, hypocritical society that won't hesitate to sacrifice the vulnerable on the alter of failed expectations.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2012

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