The Swans of Fifth Avenue

I am always in the mood for a good gossipy read. But it has to be good.

It has to be smart and sharp and funny and interesting and totally engrossing. The Royal We, The Knockoff, Crazy Rich Asian, China Rich Girlfriend, Big Little Lies – it needs to be able to keep up with these favourites.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin totally does.


It’s the 1950s and Truman Capote meets Babe Paley and manages to become friendly with her and her social group. These women, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith, C.Z Guest and Pamela Churchill are the very top of New York Society. They do not admit new friends easily but there is something about Capote that captures their imaginations – they treat him as a kind of mascot. He makes himself indispensable to them and with Babe especially he forges a strong friendship. Soon they cannot do without each other.

But Truman is, above all, a writer. And sooner or later he’s going to use his access to his “swans” against one or all of them to his benefit.

I. Loved. This. Book.

I loved the glimpse Benjamin gave us behind closed doors, the luxury that’s casually described on every page. And yet, with all the tremendous trappings of wealth that these women and their kind were surrounded by, somehow Benjamin is able to strip that away enough to show us that they were also people. People with incredible wealth and privilege but people that had their own share of problems.

Ultimately, The Swans of Fifth Avenue is about the friendship between Truman and Babe and how it shaped both their lives. When Truman exploits that friendship it has devastating consequences for each of them. It is sharp and thorough and wonderful. Yes, these people had obscene amounts of money and originally that was a part of this book’s charm. But such is Benjamin’s talent that I was able to see beyond that to the people that they were and the social structures that they were trapped by.

This book sent me down an internet rabbit hole. I googled images of the famous Black and White Ball that Truman Capote hosted in 1966. I fell through pages on Wikipedia to do with these women and their husbands. Mostly, I wanted to know more about who Babe was. I have a biography of Babe and her sisters (one married FDR’s son, another an Astor) out from the library right now for this reason. I want to know everything. And In Cold Blood has moved back to the top of my TBR List.

What was the last book that sent you searching for more information?


An Anti-Valentine’s Day Read: The House of Mirth

There are a lot of good bookish romance links out there today. You can find a list of the most romantic novels of all time on Goodreads, find out what your literary crush says about you (for the record, my crush is obviously Mr. Darcy but in terms of this article, I’m a Gilbert Blythe kind of girl. Which reminds me, I need to re-read Anne of Green Gables), or what your love story is.

My post today will not be among the most romantic links on the interwebs. I’m here to talk about The House of Mirth, which might be more of an anti-Valentine’s Day read (not that I’m anti-Valentine’s Day).

I read The House of Mirth this week and was honestly caught off guard by the ending. I should have caught on – Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart was compared to Anna Karenina after all but I didn’t.

I loved this book and I suspect that there is an entire generation of young women that would love it as well.

the house of mirth

Lily Bart has been raised to be a perfect New York wife. She is used to a life of luxury and being surrounded by all the best people. Her parents are both dead and she doesn’t have anyone to look out for her best interests and find her the best possible match. She has an old widowed aunt who doesn’t care to socialize in the same way that Lily must so she is very much left to her own devices. At 29, Lily knows that she must marry soon; her income is dwindling and she can’t count on her friends to sustain her lifestyle for much longer. At 18 or 19 she was entertaining and fresh, but a decade on she knows that her charms must be waning.

Even though she knows that she has to get married, she continues to spurn suitable matches and gets caught up in an unsuitable relationship that sees her given money she thought had been invested wisely on her behalf. In all of this is Mr. Lawrence Selden, a lawyer of no great fortune who has always been a great friend and at various moments each of them has wanted it to be more, but never at the same time.

When Lily finds herself cut loose from the people she has always considered her good friends, she winds up at a loose end, unable to sustain herself on her own income and has to find ways of earning her own way. Which in the 1890s, for a woman of her social standing, was nearly impossible. Definitely not respectable.

It’s devastating. Even in these conditions, when she knows that the only way back to the societal place that she used to occupy is to marry the right man, still she balks at giving up her independence this way.

She is a very modern heroine in a time when women could barely speak to a man in public if they were unaccompanied. Reading this book made me so thankful for the rights and freedoms that I enjoy as a human being, not based on my gender. I related to her desire for independence and sympathised with her inability to be taken seriously as a person on her own merit. Unless she becomes a Mrs and soon, she just ceases to count in her circle of ‘friends’.

In the end, when she does the right thing despite all the temptation not to, and things finally seem to be working out for her and everything truly falls apart…it’s a spectacularly tragic ending. It was too bad that I wasn’t at home where I would have been mostly free to totally fall apart. At work, you tend to look a little crazy if you lose it in the lunch room crying over a book.

The House of Mirth has found itself on to my list of favourite books. I will be reading this again and in the meantime I will be recommending it to everyone I know. I’m also on the lookout for Wharton’s The Custom of the Country which will complete my reading of her “Novels of New York.”

Do you have a favourite tragic romantic novel?


The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence was the first book written by a woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It is a masterpiece.

It tells the story of Newland Archer, who is part of one of New York’s oldest and best families, beginning on the evening when he announces his engagement to the perfect May Welland, another progeny of an old, proper New York family. In a time when propriety and what other people might say were all that mattered, May’s disgraced cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska will have a hard time coming home and finding any kind of compassion or support from her home town. She has left her husband in Europe and has no friends, save her grandmother, who has always been a bit unconventional. When May urges Archer to show kindness to her cousin, she has no idea what Pandora’s box she is opening.

All of a sudden, cold, proper Newland Archer is sending flowers to the Countess and finding excuses to see her and before long he is fighting his own better instincts: the Countess or May.

It had been a while since I had read such a classic, and honestly, it took me a little while to get used to the vocabulary and syntax of such a novel. But I was quickly engrossed and by the end, I’m sure that I emitted a sigh of satisfaction usually reserved for the likes of Jane Austen. However, unlike Jane Austen, The Age of Innocence is not a tongue-in-cheek commentary of the social niceties of the day, but a rather tortured account of the way in which social normalcies dictated the lives of people without giving any thought to their future or present happiness.

Whenever decisions are to be taken regarding the Countess, it is up to her family and their lawyers to decide what she should do, what would be the proper course of action. But no heed is paid to what the Countess may want t do, the stain of her inappropriate behaviour being too big a risk to take, as it would taint the whole family’s reputation.

Even though I know that there are still vestiges of old New York alive and kicking today, it is still hard for me to think of New York City as this stuffy, uppity place. Today, for me, NYC is much more about fashion and food and movies and everything else pop culture. I’m sure that the scions of New York’s oldest families would be rolling in their graves to see the depravity that has been foisted on their grand old city by the likes of Lady Gaga and Saturday Night Live.

The Age of Innocence has earned its place on my list of favourites and I look forward to discovering what other brilliant works Edith Wharton has to offer.

Stars: 5

Grade: A+