Monday, April 22, 2013

Cash only

Who came first, I wonder? Cora Cash, Duchess of Wareham, the heroine of The American Heiress?  Or Cora Levinson, Countess of Grantham? There's no doubt that the former probably enjoyed a bit of a jump in sales due to the latter. If you look at the entry for Daisy Goodwin's 2010 novel on my library's Bibliocommons overlay (I refuse to call it a catalog), you'll find it shows up on 20 Downton Abbey reading lists.  I don't think a Downton Abbey fix is the reason why I picked the book up, but maybe it made me susceptible.  I'm a sucker for a historical romance in almost any form.

It's the late 19th century. Cora Cash -- naive, spoiled, but also pretty self-aware -- is the richest girl in the United States. Her mother, a faded Southern belle, is extremely interested in bagging her a titled husband ... in exchange for a lot of cash of course. They sail to England in search of prey.  Cora loses her way while on a foxhunt, and tumbles from her horse. She comes to in the dilapidated castle of the Maltravers, the Dukes of Wareham. The current Duke, Ivo, is the second son of the impoverished family and it's just a few short weeks before he is down on his knee in the family's chapel asking for Cora's hand. Cora, who is still a teenager after all, has fallen hard, hard enough to believe that it's a love match.

After their marriage in New York, the couple return to Lulworth Castle and Cora sets out to establish herself as a hostess to be reckoned with.  The hidebound English love her money, of course, but turn their noses up at what they perceive to be her excesses of taste. Ivo has grown more distant since their marriage. When Cora's attempt to surprise her husband with a portrait of her painted by London's celebrity artist goes terribly awry, he leaves the country and she is banished to Lulworth to await the arrival of their baby. More misunderstandings arise upon his return and the birth of his heir before ... well, I don't want to give it away.

I ate this kind of stuff up as a teen reader, but maybe I read too many of them, because ultimately this bored me. It followed an extremely predictable path (I knew immediately what the "noise" was that startled Cora and her horse ... although I convinced myself it was the love that dare not speak its name that was going to rear its ugly head instead of a run-of-the-mill sordid affair), and the lavish descriptions of clothes, food, dinner parties, the motivations of the villains, the "problem" with the husband, all came out of the historical romance guidebook. Cora seemed particularly dense to me, but maybe that was her "Americanness" -- honesty, forthrightness, eyes firmly focused on the prize.

I was never quite sure what the author intended with the character of Bertha, Cora's Negro maid. We occasionally viewed the story through Bertha's eyes, but I couldn't grasp why some situations were narrated from this perspective and others weren't. Bertha's own romance was very thin, again I couldn't figure out why we were privy to it.

I muddled through, though, with Katherine Kellgren's help. She is, of course, born to read a novel like this -- one that allows her to show the full range of her repertoire of English accents as well as those of her own American origins. She creates a cast of hundreds, all with distinct and appropriate voices. Her Cora is steely, yet wounded and Ivo is sincere and gallant. Bertha has a soft, Southern-tinged voice and her lover Jim (?) comes with a nice country accent. The Prince of Wales makes an appearance or two with the rounded, condescending tones of a man who lets others let him win at cards. The couple's no-good mothers do tend toward the harridan-like and there are a couple of other villains who are a bit over the top as well, but these don't kill the audiobook.

The audiobook concludes with a brief interview with the author, which turns into an enthusiastic monologue about her love of audiobooks. She's like me -- audiobooks slow her down and "force you to savor a book." Her children don't go to sleep without listening to Stephen Fry read Harry Potter!

The original British title for this book is My Last Duchess, and Goodwin's epigraph for the novel is a quote from the Robert Browning poem of the same name. Isn't this about about a man who kills his wife?  It seems logical to assume that The American Heiress would head in that direction. At the very end of the novel, Ivo is standing on a cliff edge, but even then he doesn't topple over. In this story, love does indeed triumph. What was that thing Leo Tolstoy said about happy families?  Dull, dull, dull.

This blog post brings me (for what I think it the first time all year) completely up to date! It's amazing what a vacation deadline can do to focus one's attention. I'm off to explore my roots with two weeks in Sicily. Several audiobooks are cued up. See you on the other side.

[Goodwin reports that Cora Cash is modeled on Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough. No doubt the Cash "cottage" in Newport was equal to that of the Vanderbilts, pictured here. The photograph of The Breakers was taken by Ad Meskens and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Macmillan Audio, 2011.  13:26

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