Authors: Claire McMillan
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Literary, #United States, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction, #American
“McMillan ably mimics Wharton’s keen eye for social minutiae that are both absurd and engrossing . . . . Throughout, the intrigue of the various plotlines pulls us along smartly, and these characters, entangled in their own deliciously sordid webs, make this debut novel a rich romp of a read.”
“If Edith Wharton had lived in contemporary Shaker Heights, here is the novel she would have written. From the dowager who pins a half million dollars in diamonds on her fleece vest to the native son burdened by a decaying family estate, Claire McMillan gets it all right as she spins an intelligent and engrossing story of class, feminism, and beautiful but doomed Ellie Hart.”
—Susan Rebecca White, author of
A Soft Place to Land
“McMillan . . . who excels at natural dialogue, is deft at bringing character ‘types’ like Ellie and her professor-swain to life. Readers needn’t care about Cleveland aristocracy to enjoy this book . . . . Ellie Hart’s conundrum seduces us . . . studded with intriguing and accurate morsels, set among the city’s old-money WASP conventions, updated with sexting and tequila body shots. More than a century after
The House of Mirth,
McMillan demonstrates that human nature’s tendency to judge and shun is still with us.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Claire McMillan manages to both channel Edith Wharton and tell a compelling contemporary story of a woman unable to define herself through anything but the men who desire her.”
—Lily King, author of
Father of the Rain
“While the novel tips its hat to
House of Mirth,
a simple comparison doesn’t do McMillan justice.”
“Claire McMillan has captured Cleveland society in her clever net and with it brought back Lily Bart to vivid life in this witty, perceptive, and compulsively readable story of our human frailties, our strivings for success and love.”
—Sheila Kohler, author of
Becoming Jane Eyre
“As a love story, [
] is realistically convoluted, and as a glimpse of the somewhat cloistered society of upper class Cleveland, it’s fascinating.”
“Claire McMillan has written a delightful first novel, which cleverly uses
The House of Mirth
as a counterpoint for her own perceptive take on contemporary social mores. A very fun read for Wharton’s fans and anyone who likes a good story.”
—Emily Mitchell, author of
The Last Summer of the World
“Claire McMillan’s mesmerizing depiction of contemporary Rust Belt aristocracy—no less stratified and coded than Edith Wharton’s New York—is also a tender look at friendship and the secret of happiness. The haunting beauty of this novel lingers after the final page.”
—Irina Reyn, author of
What Happened to Anna K.
“McMillan cleverly uses Wharton’s classic novel to draw parallels between the social mores of two starkly different centuries . . . . An engrossing first novel.”
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I declare to you that woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself, and there I take my stand.
SUSAN B. ANTHONY
’m a native Clevelander. I went east to school, as we do. And I married the loveliest man from Charleston, South Carolina, and convinced him to move back to Cleveland and start a family with me, as Clevelanders do. Nothing is more usual than Clevelanders of a certain ilk leaving, seeing the world, and then dragging a spouse back to settle down. My husband, Jim, calls himself in jest an import—used to vary the breeding stock.
And variety is needed here. I’ve known most of my Cleveland friends since we were infants, since crawling around together on faded Oriental carpets and cartwheeling in the grass at country club picnics. My parents knew their parents, and my parents’ parents knew their grandparents, and so it goes back to the very beginnings when Cleveland was considered the West, and nice families had to stick together. So imports are needed, as few things are less exciting than kissing someone you’ve known since kindergarten.
I tell you all this so that when I tell you that Eleanor Hart moved back to Cleveland without an import, you have a sense of the problem this presented.
I’ve known Eleanor since those days when we played while our mothers gossiped over coffee. I call her mother Aunt Hart, though technically we are no relation. Her father died when she was a girl.
It’s rumored that my great-grandmother once went on a date with Eleanor’s great-grandfather. They say he took her to a speakeasy for some prohibition gin, and great-grandmother never spoke to him again. This only goes to show that Harts are adventurous and my family a bit prudish, yet discreet—a family trait.
Anyway, Eleanor was older than I by a year or two. I always forgot her age, and this coupled with her ridiculous beauty made her seem impossibly glamorous to me. Yet even as a child, she was always friendly to me. She was like an admired older cousin, and I’d known her forever.
My mother told me Eleanor was coming back. Mother talks to Aunt Hart all the time, though Aunt Hart moved down to Florida with a man a few years back. The Harts are a very fine family, but as long as we’ve known them they’ve been strapped for cash. My mother says they’re lucky the women in their family are so charming, and I suppose that’s true.
So I was only a little surprised to see Eleanor at Severance Hall, seated in a family friend’s box for the orchestra’s opening night of the season. Next to her was William Selden.
Of course I’d known Selden since childhood. He’s a little younger than I; the most angelic boy you’ve ever seen, with a head of wild blond cherubic curls that had darkened only a bit as he’d aged and were now matched by a gruff five o’clock shadow and thick tortoiseshell glasses surrounding his hazel eyes. Those glasses were a stroke of genius. They seemed to say he was a man above caring what he looked like, and it is always most attractive when a man is beautiful enough not to care what he looks like. Now he was a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, where his classes were packed almost exclusively with girls who had crushes on him. I’d heard rumors of liaisons with students but tended to doubt such stories. Good-looking men always have such whisperings in their wake, don’t they?
Good-looking women too, now that I think about it. His specialty was the Romantic poets—a bit surprising, yes, that he’d be interested in those musty old rebels. You’d expect cutting-edge contemporary free verse. But I’ve since learned that maybe I haven’t always had the clearest view of Selden. Anyway, Romantics it was, and he’d been fishing around town for a tenure-track position for a number of years. He probably would have found one long ago had he not insisted on staying in Cleveland.
He and Ellie sat in the box across from ours. To my left, Julia Trenor and Diana Dorset hugged over the waist-high wall separating their families’ boxes. The Van Alstyne family’s box to my right was filled with people I didn’t recognize. The Van Alstynes had likely sold their tickets to opening night. Farther to the right old Jefferson Gryce’s nurse pushed his wheelchair into his family’s box. In all the boxes around me people rearranged themselves in the heavy velvet chairs so that they could sit closer to one another and hear the latest gossip along with their Mahler. Friday and Saturday nights you might find anyone up there. But Thursday nights the boxes belonged to the same family names that had been sitting there when the concert hall opened in 1931. The Saturday-night opening of the music season was the sole exception.
People were intent on greeting each other. I stood in the front of the box and leaned out, casting a small wave across the way to Ellie. I noted the floor seats were filled, but seats stood empty in the balconies. They hadn’t managed a sell-out, but the economy being what it was, I suppose that wasn’t unusual. I still felt the general buzz of opening night, heightened by Eleanor being in town, and I enjoyed my prime seat.
Ellie was used to being the most beautiful woman in the room wherever she went, but she carried it lightly. Her thick hair was the color of tobacco, subtly streaked with honey, and hung down her back like a royal mantle. The fretwork in Severance Hall is modeled, so it’s said, on the lace of John Severance’s wife’s wedding veil and the Deco gilt-work glowed on Eleanor’s hair like a mantilla. Looking at that
hair, I could only think that the upkeep—in cut and color—must be expensive, though that is not the effect it had on men. Men, I felt sure, only wanted to get their hands into it, mess it, feel it, and see what it looked like on the pillow next to them first thing in the morning.
She wore a sleeveless black leather dress of chicly conservative cut that hugged her curves. I don’t need to tell you that no one wears a leather dress to the orchestra in Cleveland. She’d tied a wide white ribbon at the waist, and on the knot of the bow she’d pinned a medal awarded to a Hart in World War I by the French. She looked youthful and chic with an alluring edge of danger. I admired her, as I do anyone who dresses well.
The women all forgave her for outshining them—poor Eleanor had returned from Manhattan. Alone. Divorced. And, so rumors said, fresh from thirty days at Sierra Tucson for unspecified indulgences. Though if anyone dared ask my mother if Eleanor had been in rehab, mother insisted Ellie had collapsed from the stress of her divorce. Mother’s a bit old-fashioned about addiction and things.
I mean, how many sober ex-classmates and old friends do I have? A bunch. And they’ll gladly talk to you about it if you ask, even volunteer the fact if an overeager hostess is pushing booze on them. “No, thanks, I’m in recovery,” they’ll say. If it’s a young hostess, she’ll want to know where they went for detox. “Oh, I had a friend go there, too.” But if it’s someone in my mom’s generation, the hostess will turn white as a sheet, smile, nod, and get the hell out of there.
The men in the concert hall all simply enjoyed looking at Ellie.
One man in particular could not keep his eyes off her. He was so obvious that I wasn’t the only one who noticed. He sat in the box that the orchestra kept for wooing potential patrons, the box next to Ellie’s, and I had a clear view of him staring. The director of development sat next to him keeping up a patter in his ear. He looked to be about my age with a sharply cut suit, the whitest teeth I’d ever seen, and a head full of dark hair—attractive hair, quite glossy, with a heavy sheen of gel in it.
I didn’t think about the man again until halfway through the first
piece when a cell phone rang during a particularly quiet moment of the performance. Every head in the boxes turned toward it, and I saw it belonged to the same man. The development director turned scarlet. The man reached coolly—I was impressed by his cool—into his jacket and silenced his phone.