My Rating: 9/10
The author of Park Avenue Summer throws back the curtain on one of the most remarkable feuds in history: Alva Vanderbilt and the Mrs. Astor’s notorious battle for control of New York society during the Gilded Age.
1876. In the glittering world of Manhattan’s upper crust, women are valued by their pedigree, dowry, and, most importantly, connections. They have few rights and even less independence—what they do have is society. The more celebrated the hostess, the more powerful the woman. And none is more powerful than Caroline Astor—the Mrs. Astor.
But times are changing.
Alva Vanderbilt has recently married into one of America’s richest families. But what good is dizzying wealth when society refuses to acknowledge you? Alva, who knows what it is to have nothing, will do whatever it takes to have everything.
Sweeping three decades and based on true events, this is the mesmerizing story of two fascinating, complicated women going head to head, behaving badly, and discovering what’s truly at stake.
The Social Graces was exactly what I needed to get the reading juices flowing. I haven’t had enough of historical fiction in my life lately and it is one of my favorite genres. Most Americans have heard of the Vanderbilts and some of us have heard of the Astors, as well. The Astors were considered Old Money and Caroline Astor was THE woman that could grant access into society during the Gilded Age. The Vanderbilts were some of the richest people in America but were looked down upon for being New Money. Alva Vanderbilt desperately wanted to be included in New York’s society but her eagerness works against her in Caroline’s eyes. Alva has the tenacity and vision to rise above, even in the face of scandal and judgement from the upper crust socialites.
I found myself enthralled from the first page to the last. Honestly, the only reason that I didn’t devour this in one sitting was because I found myself looking up each character and the scandals that followed them. So much of this novel is historically accurate and I was delighted to find that in the author’s note at the end, Rosen made sure to go over which moments she embellished upon. I found that most of the research I did throughout the book was covered in that section.
The Social Graces captured the gossipy aspect of the Gilded Age while also focusing on the transition into these women finding their own voice in society outside of being socialites and wives of rich men. With the suffragette movement going on, many of these women realize that they don’t have to be kept at the mercy of their husbands. Where women used to have to accept the marriages arranged for them or had to turn a blind eye to cheating, they realize they have a choice on how they react to these situations. Alva takes an interest in architecture and design and realizes she is quite good at it, though the men around her do their best to take credit for her achievements. Alva breaks down social barriers and we see other characters adapt with her or rebel against this.
With Caroline, we follow this very strong woman who doesn’t quite know what she wants. Does she want to adapt or does she want to preserve the ideals of her mother? Can she do both? Caroline also goes through quite a few grieving processes that highlight the way grief can sideline our plans or motives. There’s moments that we can tell she wants to toe her way into the way society is changing, but then something terrible will happen and she reverts into the comfort of her set ways. I found both of these women to be incredibly complex and endearing in their own way. They could both be insufferable in their power plays, but overall, they were just women trying to find and keep places in a world meant for men.
The line that The Social Graces straddles between the extravagance of the New York elite and the beginning of a feminist movement was done subtly and beautifully. Don’t get me wrong, the women of this novel weren’t wholly brave enough to sever the safety net of money and privilege the men around them provided, but they laid down some stepping stones for their daughters and the women that followed. They made mistakes and they had regrets, but their journeys were remarkable.
All in all, this was a beautifully done novel full of excitement and multi-faceted characters. It has reignited that passion I have for historical fiction and I’d especially love to read Renee Rosen’s other novels. Thank you to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing Group for the opportunity to read and review The Social Graces.