An instant New York Times best seller! Chosen as one of Summer's Best Books by People magazine Featured in Time magazine's Summer Reading Entertainment Weekly's Summer Must List Good Housekeeping Beach Reads Feature "A witty tale about a high-society wannabe... Little is more delicious than watching an ambitious but tragically flawed protagonist brought down - especially in a designer cocktail dress." (The Washington Post) Everyone yearns to belong, to be part of the "in crowd", but how far are you willing to go to be accepted? In the case of bright, funny, and socially ambitious Evelyn Beegan, the answer is much too far.... At 26, Evelyn is determined to carve her own path in life and free herself from the influence of her social-climbing mother, who propelled her through prep school and onto New York's glamorous Upper East Side. Evelyn has long felt like an outsider to her privileged peers, but when she gets a job at a social network aimed at the elite, she's forced to embrace them. Recruiting new members for the site, Evelyn steps into a promised land of Adirondack camps, Newport cottages, and Southampton clubs thick with socialites and Wall Streeters. Despite herself, Evelyn finds the lure of belonging intoxicating and starts trying to pass as old money herself. When her father, a crusading class-action lawyer, is indicted for bribery, Evelyn must contend with her own family's downfall as she keeps up appearances in her new life, grasping with increasing desperation as the ground underneath her begins to give way.
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This book is masterfully crafted to expose the underside of East Coast society in early 2000's. No heroine, no arch enemy...but I couldn't stop listening. Awful people...but don't want to create a spoiler.
I am sooooo conflicted about this book, but I'll say up front that it's very well written, holding my interest as to how Evelyn would end up; although, it has its cringeworthy moments. Also, it's tough to discuss the book without at least some spoiler aspects, so let's get out of the way that she flies high like an Icarus, crashes badly bruised, and yes, eventually recovers. I felt it helped a lot during the worst of the events that our protagonist is, after all, someone to root for, crazed behavior and all.
Where to start … I suppose the class aspect is what got at me the most. I'm peripherally familiar with the Old Money set whom the author sets up as Evelyn's object of desire. I read that she mostly used “research” to create them, rather than (much) first-hand interaction, and from my (limited!) experience, they largely came off as exaggerated parodies, more new money in their behavior than old. As an example, the Hackings are said to stock Veuve Cliquot by the case at their summer house – my mom, who's had a bit more contact with that group than I have, snorted at the idea. The whole dinner party scene was like something out of Upstairs, Downstairs; the author was using it to indicate how humble Scot's origins were, but it really fell flat for me: my dad went to a highly regarded private school (though not boarding), then Harvard, and was a member of one of the most selective (country) clubs for most of his life, and I never heard him talk about fish knives, let alone see him use one! Moreover, I seriously doubt that Mrs. Hacking would be doing the sheets herself (barring unusual circumstances), nor would there be a plate of pastries and a thermos of coffee in the morning, with instructions to “Help yourself!” If these were actual, real world people, there'd be some sort of employees around – I'd bet good money on that.
I guess this is a good point to move on to the characters themselves. Nick is probably the easiest to discuss as, frankly, I wasn't buying him as Old Money at all, despite the mention of his family background. He seemed more like an Evelyn character who succeeded in breaking the Upper Class ceiling (from an upper middle background), because he had the large income to sustain a lavish lifestyle. I was struck that the author used The Hamptons as his 'hood for convenience; while there may still be some, residual Old Money crowd around (“The Long Secret”, sequel to the YA classic “Harriet the Spy” deals with that), the “scene” there would be awfully New Money. Charlotte, on the other hand, is completely believable, as she functions in that world when necessary, but knows all the money in the world wouldn't get her to actually want to be part of Camilla's “set” full time.
Camilla … the villain … and yet not. Bear in mind that when Evelyn first meets her, she makes the assumption that Camilla is all about fashion as she's beautiful, rich and not … ummm … intellectual, shall we say. She's called on it, and manages to befriend Camilla, but it's apparent that Ms. Rutherford is yearning to be acknowledged for something besides money and looks. Still, like Evelyn she's her mother's daughter. I'm willing to give her credit that her anger had a lot to do with being lied to, and “used”; what she wanted was for Evelyn to like her as an individual.
And now, Preston. Much is made of his sexuality, which is a problem in this group, not because they're homophobic as such, but because a gay couple (Pres and bf) would be like the old Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the others ….” It'd be awkward. However, I didn't think that was his main problem, the root of his crash: he's 28 years old, and has (presumably) never held a paying job. In the real world, that's a bit late to start, even given his connections. I can easily see whiz kids Nick, Scot and Jaime triggering the drinking as he compares their active lives to his own.
This is turning out to be a very long review, so let's get to the plot. Each chapter is a jewel in itself, including Clifford's use of titles. We start at Lake James (Lake George, NY) with Evelyn witnessing the downfall of Nick's aspirant girlfriend, Chrissie. She takes pity on the poor gal in a “There, but for the grace of God go I” manner; it was obvious to me that when Evelyn's turn comes in a reprise scene, Our Deity will be summoned to take an urgent call – not a real spoiler. Much of the action takes place there, and later at Evelyn's hometown on the eastern shore of Maryland, where Clifford shows her hand at scene setting; New York City itself, oddly, not quite as much, although it's such well trodden literary ground. Vignettes are brief glimpses, but I'm not sure what one would call the opposite: a story where chapters approach min-novella status? As Evelyn becomes more and more fixated on Camilla's set, her own world of work and family - where trouble lies like shark fins on the horizon – are minimized (ignored) as best she can, requiring Clifford to set several scenes to foreshadow the looming crises.
So, would I recommend the book? Definitely, but with notice that you'll be in it for the long haul. Light and breezy this one's NOT! I haven't read The House of Mirth, to which this book is often compared; the classic which I find the closest reader experience would be Balzac's Cousin Bette, although here we get an optimistic ending.
I've seen reviews criticizing Kellgren's narration, which I found puzzling as she absolutely nails the voices, some of whom are unsympathetic (shall we say) characters, where listening to them isn't supposed to be a “nice” experience. She gets a solid five stars for her work from me!