Desert Isle Keeper
The Social Graces
The Social Graces is a mischievous and delightful little social comedy that brings its characters to life. Though I’ve read deeper histories of the Vanderbilt and Astor mini-feud, this one definitely entertained me the most, a true generational saga that’s warm, sweet, funny and tender.
Mrs. Caroline Astor – THE Mrs. Astor, queen of the Four Hundred – rules New York society with a velvet glove in the 1870s. She sets the pace and tone of the way the upper crust works, and tries to keep things proper while spending millions on balls, dances, outfits and entertainment. No one – well, at first – knows about her domestic problems. Her husband, the drunkard William, favors their daughter Charlotte over the other children, and otherwise complains about Caroline’s expenditure but puts on a good public front, not touching Caroline and not being much of a husband.
Enter Alva Vanderbilt. She’s younger, recently married into that most dreaded social stain of all, “New Money”. She’s trying to make friends in the aristocracy, but the old money around her turns their nose up at her. Her marriage to her own William – called Wills – is boring, but Alva sets that fact aside as she seeks out publicity. Unfortunately, she rubs Caroline the wrong way immediately, and a series of social snubs from the Astors ensue. But Alva will do anything to get her family into proper society, and she knows her money is the key to unlock it.
As the years wend on, Alva makes daring social moves, becomes involved in labor activism, grooms one of her children to move into British royal circles, and becomes the queen of their social circle. Caroline, meanwhile, is humbled by domestic disasters and multiple losses. Will Alva and Caroline ever figure out how to respect one another? Or will they forever be rivals?
It’s the portrayal of day to day living that really sets The Social Graces apart from other novels about Alva Vanderbilt and this time period. We learn about the proper customs of the ‘polite’ society of the time, and also get to witness the gossipy and even ridiculous behavior of those trying to keep atop the glass mountain that is social success.
Alva is the less sympathetic party here, a social-climber at almost any cost. That does change by the time her husband has an affair with her best friend and she goes through a hideous public divorce, but she also makes several terrible critical errors when it comes to her daughter’s happiness, resulting in her own divorce. Caroline, though snobby, has to deal with more dead children and an equally bad marriage. Both women are fascinating, and the generational drama – between mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters – absolutely anchors the story.
Rosen does an excellent job examining the life of society women , deconstructing with grace and aplomb what it was like to live in the 1800s and early 1900s. The problems of the lower classes are visited, not really dealt with, which is an unfortunate weakness – but when you focus on upper-class parvenues, it cannot be helped if the narrative doesn’t balance out in that way. Also, the male characters rarely feel like more than window dressing, but the book works in spite of that.
Of the children, I loved passionate, reckless Charlotte and sweet Emily, though tempestuous Consuelo also made a run for my heart.
The Social Graces will encourage you to find a favorite of your own among the characters with its fun and breezy narrative, and I hope readers enjoy their own journey through Newport and New York society.