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This is the story of a wealthy heiress who shunned the spotlight and used her vast resources to maintain the illusions that kept her delicate psychology intact. The Clarks were the Kardashians of their day: famous for being famous, the minutiae of their lives scrutinized by the media. People are as interested to find out what happened to Huguette Clark as they would be if Kourtney or Kim Kardashian suddenly decided to hide from the public eye for decades.
I have three criticisms of the book: First, in an effort to connect far-flung events and explain why Huguette Clark became a recluse, the book suffers from too many time jumps that don't really add much to the story.
Second, the quotes from people who knew Huguette don't add much to the story, either. It's possible that, working from historical documents, the author didn't have much choice in regard to quotes. But even the people she interviewed in person come across as not having anything interesting to say.
Last, too much of the story focuses on the early life of Huguette's father, his first wife, and the children from that marriage. The book doesn't really find its stride until well over halfway through, when it begins to examine the forces in Huguette's young adult life that drove her to become a recluse.
In summary: this book had the opportunity to delve into Huguette's unusual psychology, and the psychology of recluses in general. There are hints throughout of psychological analyses, but no real focus on them. So, ultimately, the book left me disappointed.
13 of 14 people found this review helpful
I reviewed "Empty Mansions" as well, since I read both. This book achieved something that the other did not - it brought us into Huguette's world. She takes the reader into her early unfulfilled romances and shows the connection between the dolls, dollhouses, painting lessons, photography, frame-by-frame cartoons and how, put together, they became art. Whereas the "Empty Mansions" authors see the glaring oddity of buying houses with no intention of even visiting them, Gordon sees the creative inner life of Huguette within her own walls.
There should be a Huguette Clark art show, at the Corcoran maybe. It could finish the work Meryl Gordon started - showing the results of a lifetime of creative collecting, modifying and documenting aspects of the material world (i.e., dolls and dollhouses, Japanese design and architecture). I would love to see the photographs she took of the staged settings in the dollhouses. Architecture played a major role in her life - houses huge, empty and forbidding, houses under construction, houses built for pride, bought as buffer zones and manned like gatekeepers to a distant castle, houses that Huguette tried to keep frozen in time, her world growing smaller and smaller around her . . . and the placement of the dolls in the photographs she staged may say something about her role within this world. Huguette documented her own life via photography - that may be her real "voice."
11 of 12 people found this review helpful
If you could sum up The Phantom of Fifth Avenue in three words, what would they be?
How money corrupts
What did you like best about this story?
I enjoyed hearing about Huguettes life during the major events of the 20th Century. She lived to be nearly 105 so she saw and experience major changes.
What about Bernadette Dunne’s performance did you like?
The narrator was good - easy to listen to.
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
No, it was a book which I needed to have breaks from to absorb the information. The chronology of the story is rather confusing as it goes from one era to the next then back again. I also found myself needing to think about Huguettes life, and the psychology of why she became a recluse - we are not given any conclusions as to why she lived like she did. It is left to the reader to make their own interpretation. It triggered lots of emotions in me and I needed time to reflect.
Any additional comments?
A wonderful story. The only hesitation I had with this book is that Huguette clearly wanted to live a private life. She never wanted to be a 'society girl', she was shy and hated being photographed or her life publicised. This made me feel a little uncomfortable about her life being dissected - albeit in sensitive and thoughtful way. This book made me think about the importance of childhood and how money cannot buy self esteem nor security that we need to be happy.