Fallen Beauty

Fallen Beauty

by Erika Robuck

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Overview

Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck

“Without sin, can we know beauty? Can we fully appreciate the summer without the winter? No, I am glad to suffer so I can feel the fullness of our time in the light.”

Upstate New York, 1928. Laura Kelley and the man she loves sneak away from their judgmental town to attend a performance of the scandalous Ziegfeld Follies. But the dark consequences of their night of daring and delight reach far into the future.…

That same evening, Bohemian poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and her indulgent husband hold a wild party in their remote mountain estate, hoping to inspire her muse. Millay declares her wish for a new lover who will take her to unparalleled heights of passion and poetry, but for the first time, the man who responds will not bend completely to her will.…

Two years later, Laura, an unwed seamstress struggling to support her daughter, and Millay, a woman fighting the passage of time, work together secretly to create costumes for Millay’s next grand tour. As their complex, often uneasy friendship develops amid growing local condemnation, each woman is forced to confront what it means to be a fallen woman…and to decide for herself what price she is willing to pay to live a full life.

Lovers of the Jazz Age, literary enthusiasts, and general historic fiction readers will find much to love about Call Me Zelda. Highly recommended.” –Historical Novel Society, Editors’ Choice

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451418906
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/04/2014
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 639,379
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Erika Robuck is the national bestselling author of The House of HawthorneFallen Beauty, Call Me Zelda, Hemingway’s Girl, and Receive Me Falling. She is a contributor to the fiction blog Writer Unboxed, and she maintains her own blog, Muse. She is a member of the Hawthorne Society, the Hemingway Society, the Historical Novel Society, and the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. She lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with her husband and three sons.

Read an Excerpt

LAURA

Our quick breath encircled our heads in the late-winter air as he pulled me by the hand, through lines of Model Ts and Cadillac Coupes, toward the glow of the Colonial Theatre. My body coursed with elation and guilt, every bit as intoxicating as the rum drinks he'd mixed for us out of the trunk of his car. The frenzy of the Jazz Age had overflowed from the cities into smaller towns like ours in music, film, fashion, and literature, resulting in restlessness and tension between generations and ideals. Fueled by the energy of the new, we had toasted our agreement: That night it was only us in the world, and we would live like it was ours.

He'd lifted a triple-stranded pearl necklace over my head and set it on my skin, kissing the scar on my collarbone, a relic from the first night we'd found each other. He whispered that the neck lace was only costume jewelry, but one day he'd buy me the real thing.

As we hurried toward the theater it occurred to me that time was made of moments like doorways one could never go back through to the way it was after crossing them. That night was a doorway, but I had no power to stop our passage. Distant church bells ignited my doubts like incense, however, and I dug my heels into the grass. When my love turned to see why I'd stopped, his profile stirred me-the sharp jawline, the fine sheen on his skin from his exertion, his pale blue eyes shining from the light of the theater. I often think of him that way, outlined in the lights, with the grin of the waxing crescent moon over us, leading me toward the most exhilarating night of my life.

"It's all right," he said. "We've come this far:'

Cold air tickled my neck from my newly bobbed blond hair. I glanced down at my gold evening dress and touched the match ing feathered headband I'd sewn in secret, night after night, hid ing it from my father and even my sister, losing sleep because I knew they must not know. They wouldn't approve or understand, and my younger sister would have wanted to come. In the eigh teen years since her birth, just a year after mine, I'd never kept anything from Marie, but that night I wanted something for my self, alone.

My love had motored us an hour north and east from our

Hudson River Valley town of Chatham, New York, to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to see the Ziegfeld Follies-a daring show featuring the most beautiful girls, talented dancers, and elaborate traveling production in the world. The famous Denishawn Dancers were fresh from the Orient, in company with their well-known leaders, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn and the glamorous Marilyn Miller, preparing to dazzle the sold-out crowd. The car ride had been thrilling and terrifying- a reminder of the first night we'd officially met, when we'd traveled these roads but things had gone very wrong.

I allowed him to continue leading me toward the theater. Competing perfumes hung in the air over the line of theatergoers we joined that bordered the building. Street scalpers hid in the shadows behind the Colonial, trying to sell their tickets. I squeezed my love’s hand and leaned into him, relishing the freedom to do so in public, away from the disapproving eyes of our town. He wrapped his arms around me and nuzzled my neck.

I noticed a woman of about thirty in a sagging gray dress and coat, wringing her hands and pacing in what looked like indecision. She stood near a scalper and flicked her gaze between the theater and the man before finally approaching him and offering him something from her threadbare clutch. He looked her up and down and rolled his eyes, shaking his head. I could see only the back of her, her unwashed hair in a flimsy bun, and the soles of her shoes so scuffed and worn, I imagined she could feel the chill of the ground reaching through them.

The scalper shooed her away, and when she turned toward me, she nearly broke my heart. She was crying-crying because she couldn't go in to see a show.

"Laura, why are you so troubled?"

The woman removed a crumpled handkerchief from her purse and wiped her nose.

"She doesn't have enough money to go in," I said, "and she

looks as if her life depends upon it."

He followed my gaze and saw her. His eyebrows knitted together.

"Do you have any cash?" I asked. "I have two dollars. The

tickets are five, though who knows how much he's charging for them?"

He hesitated a moment, but when he saw the look in my eyes, he pulled a five from his wallet and said, "Let's give her a night like we've given ourselves."

He walked over to the man and bought the ticket, and brought it back to me. "You give it to her. You saw her. And I don't want her to think I'm some kind of chisel."

She had started to walk away, so I hurried after her. “Ma’a.”

She turned, and looked with curiosity over my headband and dress peeking through my open coat. I could see her wondering what a ritzy gal like me wanted with the likes of her. I nearly told her that I was usually dressed as plainly as she, but I didn’t want to insult her.

"I have an extra ticket, and noticed that you wanted to go in;' I said. "Please take it."

She looked to the left and right and then back at me with a troubled expression, as if she thought I was trying to frame her. This was a woman unused to kindness.

"Please," I said, smiling to reassure her. "The doors are opening. We don't want to miss any of the show."

She hesitated a moment, and then took the ticket. "Thank you. May I give you what I have?" She held out a dollar bill.

"No," I said.

"Laura," he called.

"Enjoy," I said, and hurried to him. When I looked back at the woman, I could see her eyes glistening in the marquee lights.

As white spotlights rolled around the theater, the music of the fifty-piece orchestra began with the brassy majesty of a Hollywood production. I clenched my love's hand, dizzy with excitement and awe. The heavy red velvet curtain rose, revealing a long, curving staircase in front of a shimmering silver curtain. Three chandeliers lifted, and lights embedded in the arches over the fixtures and woven through the silver curtain twinkled in time to the music.

The procession of the famous Ziegfeld girls began down the stairs, women of extraordinary beauty and grace parading like swans in white-feathered headpieces and sequined bodysuits. I was astonished to see their long, bare legs, and covered my mouth while meeting my date's gaze. He smiled and squeezed me close to him before he turned back to face the stage.

They began singing the opening number, while a seemingly endless parade of male dancers in front from either side, pairing up with the women as they reached the bottom of the staircase, and leading them to the four corners of the stage. I could barely stand to move my eyes off the performers, but I wanted to take in the audience around me. I scanned the boxes and rows, and found the woman from outside who almost hadn't made the show. She wore a look of ecstasy that moved me.

I returned my focus to the stage, not moving for the rest of the production. From birds to angels, gods and goddesses, I was transfixed by the transformations of the dancers. As the finale approached, Ruth St. Denis danced "The Gold and Black Saree" in a costume tinkling with gold charms and lined in fringe. Watching the way the lights caught the fabric as it clung to and flung away from her body in response to the movements, seeing this American girl transformed into an Indian woman, noting the near hypnosis of the audience, I knew that I wanted be a part of this world. This symphony of sound, light, fabric, and motion aroused a deep longing inside me.

When the show ended with a crescendo, the audience held its collective breath for a long moment, and finally erupted into an ovation. I gazed around at the eager, happy faces and spotted the woman from earlier. She appeared relaxed, exuberant, lit from within. I caught her eye and her smile warmed me. No matter what the critics said about the bare skin, exorbitant production costs, and provocative dances, the show had transformed her, as it had me, and I was glad to have seen it.

Silence filled the car on the drive home. We traveled along dark winding roads, watching the shiver of the breeze through the shadows of budding branches, feeling the melancholy of reality again burdening us. I removed my headband and ran my fingers over the silken feathers, wondering if I'd ever again get to wear such a beautiful costume. I realized it was the and me there on frequent weekend hikes, but we would never have attempted such a dangerous climb in the dark. Recklessness still pumped through my body, and I wanted some truth to my excursion so I wouldn't betray myself to my father, and especially to Marie.

"Are you sure?" he said. "You're not too tired?"

I was tired-to my bones-but I couldn't stand the thought of the night ending and of no longer being with him, and having to pretend we didn't love each other.

"I'm sure."

The light from the moon did little to illuminate the deep shadows in the woods. I removed my high heels and slipped on loafers while keeping on the dress. The car crunched to a stop on the gravel, and we got out and started off on the path to the falls. A false spring had tricked us with early budding, until a cold snap sent us reeling back to winter. Frost encased the trees. My teeth chattered, but I stormed ahead, feeling the energy from earlier reassert itself

"Laura, wait!" he called.

I lunged back and grabbed his hand, pulling him behind me on the path, feeling the wind in my hair, allowing a laugh to rise in my throat. I looked back at him, and his smile had returned.

The forest closed in over us, and it wasn't long before the

rushing of the falls grew. He struggled to keep up with me as I ran forward. I slid to a stop in the clearing before the magnificent waterfall as a great slab of ice plummeted over the edge above us and crashed into the pools below. Frozen chunks sat like puzzle pieces on the banks, dislodged and crowded, bobbing in the riv er's thaw.

I strained to hear the sad ghosts' cries, but heard only the falls, and because people had died by slipping on the rocks or diving into the shallows, many thought this place held a curse.

I felt no curse that night. I felt only my lover's arms around

me as I fell into him. He grabbed my waist and pulled me close. Our passion, left smoldering by months of stealth and guilt, had finally ignited from our excursion of drinking, adventure, and abandon. I threw my arms around his neck and gave him my love without reserve. No caution or wariness held me back now. No one was around to judge me, and at that moment, I didn't care for the opinion of another soul in the world. I only knew that this night was a gift we had agreed to give to each other, and by God, we gave it-the fullest expression of our love. We joined ourselves forever in ways we hadn't taken time to consider or weigh. We knew only that we had to consummate our love, no matter what the cost.

VINCENT

Our guests' train arrives late, so we are already tight when they come. My husband, Eugen, holds up a torch he's made of hickory, parading the party up the walk and through the sleet. I carry the gin outside and make each of them take a healthy swig from the bottle before gaining entrance.

Elaine runs her hands up the sides of my costume, grazing my breasts before pulling me into her. She suddenly pushes away and says with fierceness, "How I've missed you.”

I do not embrace her back, but instead, give her my cruelest smile. "Tonight, I am an houri, so I'm for the men. Not you."

She pouts, while Floyd, one of my old lovers, pushes around her and lifts me off the ground. I wrap my legs around him as he pretends to ravage my neck. I laugh and allow him to carry me into the house and to the parlor, where he drops me on the settee, and I drop the empty bottle of gin on the rug. He kisses me full on the mouth, and I feel him stir through the thin fabric of my dress.

"I must stay pure," I say, "if I'm to escort you to paradise:' He laughs with wickedness as the poet Elinor Wylie pulls him off me and exchanges her body for his between my legs. She nuzzles me and I feel myselfstir.

"Surely you'll make an exception for me," she whispers.

I look into her eyes from inches away. I want to tell her that I'll always make an exception for her, but my demon returns. "Time shall tell:'

Her face hardens and she stands, allowing me up from the couch. I adjust my headdress and climb onto the sofa so I can see all of them. The rest of the group comes singing and tumbling into the room, and once they are in, the small crowd gazes up at me. I know I am impressive in my costume, and I can feel the desire humming in the room as so many of my lovers, current and past, male and female, watch me, wanting to possess me.

Using the flaming bundle ofhickory in a daring and danger ous fashion, Eugen, dressed as the Maharaja, lights sticks of in cense we brought back from our Oriental travels, and then tosses the bundle into the fireplace. While my guests warm themselves, I jump down from the settee, approach my old lover Margot, and slip my arm through hers.

"Come," I say. "Let us fetch the costumes. Dressing up allows inhibitions to fall down.”

Margot smiles at me with downcast eyes, and I see a blush creeping up her neck. I reach up to stroke her skin with the back of my right hand, and feel Elinor's gaze fixed on us. I speak just loud enough for Elinor to hear.

"How can I forget?" says Margot.

"Why would you want to?" I reply. I look sideways at Elinor and she turns away. Margot and I giggle as we run up the stairs to the trunks of Chinese trousers, Turkish silks, sarongs and slippers, and carry them back down as an offering to the party. My lovers remove their clothing and dance around the fire like devils, telling stories, acting parts, making love and mayhem, and rising to the most delightful level of intoxication, and when the night and our tightness begin to press on us with their weight, Floyd talks of the good old days in Greenwich Village when the war had ended, and we performed plays, and were poor and young and free.

''I'll never forget the day we walked into Vincent's apartment," says Floyd, "and she and her sister Norma sat like two old ladies sewing while the most magnificent swearwords tumbled from their mouths from around the sides of the cigarettes they smoked."

"I had to teach her to curse out loud, and smoke, and walk around without a corset;' I say. "It took two days of nonstop debauchery to break her. I was positively ill."

"Such a family," says Margot. "In Paris, Vinny's mother would sit in the corner- a true old lady, smoking and swearing and watch us drink and fall all over one another without judgment."

"I love my dear mother," I say, "and it's been too long since

I've seen her. Uge, we must visit her soon."

"Yes, love," says Eugen. "We shall as soon as the roads clear." "Now we're so damned conventional;' I say, killing the last of my gin and my good spirits. 'Tm thirty-six years old. One day bleeds into the next. We are alone up here at Steepletop. Utterly:'

The group protests his leaving, and Elinor pulls Eugen to her. "No, don't make this night end."

He kisses her on the lips, and she caresses his face.

"It has ended for me," he says, "but you all keep it alive. Don't let the old Maharajah spoil your fun:'

He uncoils himself from Elinor's arms and stumbles up the

stairs, leaving a subdued group in his wake. I am suddenly over come with guilt for how long it has been since I've seen or writ ten to my mother or my sisters. Our Greenwich Village and Paris remembrances have depressed me and make me long for that time again. The stark winter weather that refuses to leave us in our isolated mountain estate has seeped into me for so long that I don't know if I will ever again bloom.

And I am drunk-dreadfully inebriated and spewing non sense and musings on the decline of man and my loss of hope in civilization since the execution of those Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti, framed for murders they did not commit.

The cry of a bobcat in the distance silences me, and I feel the

terrible thrill of dangers lurking outside our doors, and inside too. The eat's cry sounds savage and predatory, and I wonder what she'll kill for herself tonight.

Elinor reaches for me with her elegant fingers and I slap them away and stand, caring not that I've offended her at every turn this evening, from my rejection of her physical advances, to my poetic arguments, to now. Why do I do this to her, when I would like nothing more than to take her upstairs with me? I don't know what evil chills my heart, but I know I have to go before I further poison the room.

As I am about to leave, I catch the eye of the ebony bust of

Sappho in the corner, that ancient love poet whose black gaze reflects the light of the fire, and I feel a rekindling. My enchanting power has been stoked, reminded of itself in the company of these old lovers from Vassar, where fifteen years ago my power first pulsed within me. I inhale the energy to feed the dry well of words and love and beauty inside me, and remember that it is fresh, savage love that gives me power. I meet the gaze of the marble bust across the room, and implore her to return my strength after this bitter winter so I may complete this poetry collection whose construction continues to elude me. I'm nearly frantic to know if she'll grant my wish-if she'll lay a new love at my feet and allow me to burst forth again and reclaim the power that I am born to possess.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Fallen Beauty

“Robuck's winning mix of imaginative storytelling and historical research makes for a gripping tale. Fallen Beauty is a must-read for fans of the fascinating poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.”—J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times bestselling author of Maine

“Erika Robuck brings the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay to life in all her beauty and insatiability. This is an electrifying read, one that crackles with passion on every page. The book reads like poetry.”—Alyson Richman, national bestselling author of The Lost Wife

“This finely tuned, lyrical novel is Robuck's strongest work to date, and destined to become an American classic.”—Simon Van Booy, award-winning author of The Illusion of Separateness

Praise for Call Me Zelda

“This gem of a novel spins a different, touching story.…You will love it, as I absolutely did.”—Tatiana de Rosnay, New York Times Bestselling Author of Sarah’s Key

“Richly imagined…an unsettling yet tender portrayal of two women inextricably bound by hope and tragedy.”—Beth Hoffman, New York Times Bestselling Author of Looking for You

“Haunting and beautifully atmospheric…brilliantly brings Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to life in all their doomed beauty, with compelling and unforgettable results.”—Alex George, Author of A Good American

Praise for Hemingway’s Girl

“You’ll love this robust, tender story of love, grief, and survival on Key West in the 1930s…addictive.”—Jenna Blum, New York Times Bestselling Author of Those Who Save Us

“Readers will delight in the complex relationships and vivid setting.”—Publishers Weekly

“Evokes a setting of the greatest fascination...This is assured and richly enjoyable storytelling.”—Margaret Leroy, Author of The Soldier’s Wife

"Robuck's breathtaking alchemy is to put us inside the world of Hemingway and his wife Pauline, and add a bold young woman to the mix with a story uniquely her own. Dazzlingly written and impossibly moving, this novel is a supernova."—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times Bestselling Author of Pictures of You

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Upstate New York, 1928. Laura Kelley and the man she loves sneak away from their judgmental town to attend a performance of the scandalous Ziegfeld Follies. But the dark consequences of their night of daring and delight reach far into the future.…

That same evening, Bohemian poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and her indulgent husband hold a wild party in their remote mountain estate, hoping to inspire her muse. Millay declares her wish for a new lover who will take her to unparalleled heights of passion and poetry, but for the first time, the man who responds will not bend completely to her will.…

Two years later, Laura, an unwed seamstress struggling to support her daughter, and Millay, a woman fighting the passage of time, work together secretly to create costumes for Millay’s next grand tour. As their complex, often uneasy friendship develops amid growing local condemnation, each woman is forced to confront what it means to be a fallen woman…and to decide for herself what price she is willing to pay to live a full life.


ABOUT ERIKA ROBUCK

Erika Robuck is a contributor to the popular fiction blog Writer Unboxed, and she maintains her own blog, Muse. She is a member of the Hemingway Society, the Millay Society and the Historical Novel Society, and she lives in the Chesapeake Bay area with her husband and three sons. She is the author of Receive Me Falling and Hemingway’s Girl.


A CONVERSATION WITH ERIKA ROBUCK

What inspired you to make Edna St. Vincent Millay the subject of your third literary-themed novel?

My studies of the Fitzgeralds for my novel Call Me Zelda led me to Millay. Two of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Princeton friends, Edmund "Bunny" Wilson and John Peale Bishop, worshipped Millay, and their adoration of her reminded me of my interest in her poetry, which I first read in college. Wilson's moving obituary for Millay in his essay collection Shores of Light inspired me to learn more about the poet who had such an "intoxicating effect on people." It didn't take long for Millay to cast her spell on me.

A poet, a seamstress, and a sculptor-there's something poetic about that combination. How did you come up with it?

My visit to Millay's home Steepletop, a seven-hundred-acre estate in the Berkshires, inspired the characters in my story. When I first saw photographs of the pastoral place, I imagined what an ideal retreat it must have been for Millay, where she could compose her poetry in peace. On my visit, however, I realized this was not necessarily so.

First, Steepletop is very remote. Traveling the winding mountain roads bordered with forests reminded me of the opening of Stephen King's The Shining. Once I arrived, I was struck by two things: First, it was almost blindingly bright, and, second, the terrible buzzing of bees could be heard everywhere. When I entered the house, the blank-eyed gaze of the large black bust of Sappho in Millay's parlor made me uncomfortable, and I was further disturbed to stand in the foyer at the bottom of the staircase, where Millay had fallen to her death.

When I walked upstairs into Millay's rooms, I was interested to see elaborate robes hanging in her bathroom, and to learn about her dramatic reading tour wardrobes. I was reminded of the poetry collection for which she won the Pulitzer, The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, about an impoverished mother who magically weaves her son's fancy clothing on a harp until she dies.

All of these research ingredients blended in my imagination to form and connect my poet, seamstress, and sculptor.

Millay's desire to plumb the heights and depths that life could offer, all in service to her poetry, makes her a fascinating figure. Why do you think we are drawn to her, and people like her? Do we secretly wish we had the courage to go where she dares to go? And as a writer yourself, how do you reconcile the need to feed your creative muse while remaining a responsible, "highly functioning" grown-up?

Women like Millay, who live so fiercely on the edge of what mainstream society might consider scandalous, are captivating in any time period. What I found most interesting about Millay and her husband was their belief that her experiences in life, love, lust, and pain were part of her vocation, and, therefore, worthy of being taken as far as she was willing to go. I'm sure we all have secret thoughts and fantasies that we either let loose or rein in, depending on how impulsive we are, how ingrained our moral beliefs are, or any number of other factors, but those who flout convention make fascinating characters.

So far my imagination has been able to supply all of my edgy material, much to my husband's relief.

In the last few months, I've comes across several mentions of Millay. Caroline Kennedy has quoted Millay's "First Fig" in interviews and suspense writer Sophie Hannah has called Millay one of her five favorite writers. Are we poised for a Millay renaissance?

I'm intrigued by the idea of Millay's second renaissance, since it was her poem "Renascence," selected for an annual poetry anthology when she was just twenty years old, that initially made her a celebrity.

In Millay's own time, she sold out thousand-seat auditoriums on reading tours. Her adoring fans sent her endless correspondence about her poetry. Her collections were continuously being reprinted, and she was one of the first women to win the Pulitzer Prize. At her peak, Millay's writings made her approximately thirty thousand dollars a year, which would be nearly half a million dollars in the present day. Our time is rich with captivating women artists, musicians, and writers, and Millay is worthy to stand with the best of them.

I believe our culture is poised not only for a Millay renaissance, but also for a poetry renaissance. As our attention span constricts in response to the gadgets we use, poetry could supply a new consciousness with deep meaning in short form.

Through the character of Laura Kelley, Fallen Beauty explores what it meant to be a "fallen woman" in the 1930s, but in some ways, Edna St. Vincent Millay might also be considered a fallen woman. Would you share some of what you hoped to convey in this regard?

I wanted to show how making judgments about people injects poison into communities, how frequently all is not what it seems, and how those who outspokenly oppose something that they see as corrosive are often battling aspects of the very behavior they denounce.

Through the women in particular in Fallen Beauty, I wanted to explore how we seek fulfillment, what it means to be an "ideal" woman (if there is such a thing), how our desires can either help to build us up or destroy us, and how we can remake our lives after we fall.

You mentioned once that car accidents were a hallmark of novels set in the twenties and thirties, which came as a surprise to me. Can you explain?

The use of the automobile accident, or the vehicle as a symbol of violence for dramatic effect, is typical of works set in the twenties and thirties, when driving became more prevalent and cars were associated with certain freedoms. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses a car accident in This Side of Paradise and at the climax of The Great Gatsby. In Appointment at Samarra by John O'Hara, the car becomes a device for suicide. In 1936, Millay was in a car accident with Eugen in the driver's seat, in which she was flung out of the vehicle and into a ravine. Afterward, she suffered permanent problems with her back, which led her to abuse prescription drugs. A car accident seemed a fitting device for illustrating the trouble that becomes the catalyst for events in Fallen Beauty.

Edna St. Vincent Millay seems to have been especially close to her mother. Can you tell us more about Edna's upbringing and family dynamics? Were her two sisters at all like her? And does she have any descendants through her sisters?

After her scandalous divorce from her husband in 1900 for gambling, Cora Millay raised her three daughters alone, often leaving the girls for long periods to work as a practical nurse. Cora insisted on the education and betterment of her girls in spite of their poverty, and she was their greatest champion and supporter. They worshipped her, and Vincent was said to enjoy her times of illness because Cora would stay home to take care of her.

Vincent's sisters, Norma and Kathleen, were artists in their own rights. Norma was an actress in the theater and Kathleen was a writer, though she existed in Vincent's shadow. Neither had any children.

Biographers have noted the extreme closeness of the women, saying that they often lived and socialized together, wrote poetry for one another, and crafted strange, almost adoring letters to one another. I found Vincent's "love letters" to her mother both charming and unsettling.

The three novels we've worked on together all explore the idea of redemption in one way or another. Is that a deliberate choice, or a theme that cropped up without your being aware of it?

I believe it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said that writers have only one story to tell, so I suppose redemption is my story. My mission with Ernest Hemingway, Zelda Fitzgerald, and now Edna St. Vincent Millay is to show their humanity through their fascinating lives in order to honor them and remind readers of their work. I like to read novels that offer redemption in spite of hardship, so it's only natural that I employ similar themes in my own fiction.

You've now explored in your novels Ernest Hemingway, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Edna St. Vincent Millay-all of whom were contemporaries of one another. From your current perspective, are there any commonalities you see in their lives and work, or any conclusions we can draw-however tentatively-about their relevance for our own time?

Commonalities I've discovered are the way they used real people in their fiction, often without regard for the feelings of those being exploited, though all three approached this differently. Hemingway fictionalized his experiences after he'd had them. Zelda wrote autobiographically, often exposing her own personality flaws and insecurities. Millay was in love with love more than she was with the people who received her brand of love, and she used those heightened emotions to inspire her poetry. In each instance, the writings seem corrosive to those involved, though the work is often brilliant.

As a writer, I'm interested in understanding the creative mind, and just what is necessary to make great art. I find that question relevant to any time. Stories are what help us make sense of and empathize with one another. Perhaps by studying the lives of others, we can learn from their mistakes. Millay often wrote about nature and the cycle of the seasons in her poetry, and she used nature's lessons to comfort and instruct herself in love. History has cycles, and examining the past helps us to anticipate the future.

Are you ready to share the subject of your next novel?

The subject of my next novel is a very private gentleman from a long time ago who often felt isolated in spite of being surrounded by his loving family and accomplished contemporaries. I will not yet reveal his name, but I will say that through him, I will explore loneliness and, most certainly, redemption.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • What was your overall reaction to reading Fallen Beauty?
  • How are both Edna St. Vincent Millay and Laura Kelley "fallen women"? How does each rebuild her life after her fall?
  • Discuss the changing dynamics between Laura and Edna over the course of the novel. How do they hurt and help each other? By the end, how would you define their relationship?
  • Discuss the many kinds of isolation in the novel. How much of it is self-imposed, and why do some characters choose isolation? How does community act to reinforce or counteract that isolation?
  • Laura is keeping her lover's identity secret. Discuss the secrets that other people in town are keeping. Do Edna and Eugen keep any secrets?
  • Compare Laura's relationship with her unidentified lover and Edna's relationship with George Dillon.
  • What role does the statue of the Virgin play in the novel? Why do you think Erika Robuck included it?
  • Erika Robuck has said that Fallen Beauty is based on themes from Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. What do you think she means?
  • Talk about the various mothers in the book, and what we know about the choices they made. What kind of mother might Edna have made? What direction might Laura's life have taken if she wasn't a mother? Based on what the novel reveals about Cora, how do you think she helped shape Edna's life?
  • Do you think, like Edna, that artists should seek to live fully in order to have profound experiences to inspire their art? What price might an artist pay in doing so? What price does Millay pay? What about Laura?
  • Attitudes about out-of-wedlock births have changed dramatically since the 1930s when this novel takes place. Do you have stories to share, perhaps from your own family, about women whose lives were affected by a pregnancy outside of marriage? How different is your own attitude to those held in the thirties?
  • At the end of the novel, Edna calls Laura a "cruel beauty." What do you think she means? How is Edna herself a cruel beauty?
  • What do you think you'll remember about this novel long after you finish reading it
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    Fallen Beauty 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Like other readers, I really did not know much about poet Edna St. Vincent Mallay prior to reading Erika Robuck's FALLEN BEAUTY. I had no idea that Millay's life and personal tastes almost make present day scandals and celebrities seem normal. ;) Robuck is one of the most capable historical fiction writers I have ever read. I get lost in her brilliant writing. There is nothing worse that historical fiction that glosses over the actual facts of which they write, but Robuck clearly does her homework. I always feel that I can completely trust her subject matter. I highly recommend this book!
    literarymuseVC More than 1 year ago
    A seductive, jaded poet presents as a liberal woman in 1928 upstate New York.  Anyone who knows her wants to drink, eat, and embrace free love with her, with no reservations on a daily basis.  The same group from town, who are riddled with jealousy but who secretly join her bacchanalian parties, condemn her as an immoral witch.  The last group is emotionally shattered by this free love style which has sucked up spouses in a parasitic, hallucinatory embrace, the ultimate betrayal for committed couples.   Yes, this is the poet, Edna Vincent Millay, known as “Vince” or “Vincie” to those who have entered her embrace, the woman who leaves behind tormented bodies and shattered souls, the woman who needs these lovers and worshippers to inspire her creations of amazingly sensitive and famous poetry.  One might call her bohemian or a torturer, but while reading this novel the reader is enchanted by her poetic, truthful comments or conversations.  The reader is thus as easily seduced by this poet who seems to exude the truth of beauty and the beauty of truth, principles which one may come to understand but which yield to daunting costs and shattering revelations. While Millay forges ahead in her campaign of ravishment, a young woman living in the town next to the countryside where Millay resides is suffering her own betrayal and shame.  Remember, this is 1928 and to fall in love and bear a child out of that love but outside of marriage is anathema to any law-abiding middle class resident.  Christianity is used more as a tool of condemnation against Laura Kelley, who attempts to ignore the critics but whose shame for being an unwed mother of a beautiful child never leaves.  She is also a talented seamstress, whose business declines after she gives birth to a witty, fearless little girl and is abandoned by a former lover who remains unnamed for a very long time. Complications follow involving Laura’s sister, a revered female leader in the town, a group of Gypsies, and a sculptor.  Secrets are revealed as the relationships of all begin to fragment.  The beauty in this novel, however, has to do with Laura’s significant skill in creating beautiful dresses and gowns reflective of the Jazz Age, the time in which men and women yearned to be rid of all rules, laws and boundaries.    Poetry is an accepted art but at the time the creators of beautiful, liberating clothing was admired by many but worn by only those daring enough to “not care” about conventional values.  The creation of both gifts is depicted in exquisite details which can be relished by any sensitive reader.  Yes, Edna or Vincie, as well as Laura, suffer in order to generate beautiful and liberating art.  Many aspects of several mysteries are revealed and both women mature (having nothing and everything to do with art) and both evolve into memorable, dynamic characters.  The rest is indescribable but MUST be read and experienced through one’s intellect and soul. Transformation follows for all, including the reader.  Delightful historical fiction and highly recommended!  You won’t want it to end at all!
    Tracey_L More than 1 year ago
    I first was introduced to Edna St. Vincent Millay by the accidental thrift shop discovery of a book called Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford. After reading it twice over (as soon as I finished I started it again!), I became a devotee of Ms. Millay and wanted to learn more about her life and her work. Luckily for me, I learned about Erika Robuck and her book Fallen Beauty. This was my first experience with the writing of Ms. Robuck, but it most definitely will not be the last. Fallen Beauty takes place in late 1920's New York at Millay's Steepletop hideaway and in the nearby town. It introduces the fictional character of Laura Kelley as the town seamstress to interact with Millay and her husband through the ordering of a wardrobe for Millay's speaking tours. Without giving any of the story away, I was really impressed with how Ms. Robuck managed to weave the two separate stories of Laura and Millay together while developing each separately. Her character development was excellent, and the secret kept me guessing until the end. I loved seeing more of Millay, even in a somewhat fictionalized form, and was genuinely unhappy when the book came to an end. Although this was my first book by Ms. Robuck, it will not be my last, as I have Call Me Zelda in my towering bedside stack just waiting for me to dive in.
    SuperReaderChick More than 1 year ago
    I have loved each one of Erika Robuck's books so far, but this one is special. Edna St. Vincent Millay was a colorful woman who lived a vivid life in order to fully feel and create her poetry. Ms. Robuck uses her special knack for getting inside each of her characters, both fictional and real, and finding out what makes them tick. It makes for an awesome story. She always keeps me guessing about what will happen next and this story was no different. She has successfully weaved another beautiful story . I highly recommend her work. 
    anovelreview_blogspot_com More than 1 year ago
    In order to preoccupy herself and not think of the lover who has left her, Millay focuses her attention on the local seamstress, Laura Kelley. Laura, herself is a Fallen Beauty in the town of Chatham (just outside New York). Millay fixates on Laura and Laura is in desperate need of financial help. The two unlikely woman create a unique relationship, and eventually help the other to move forward. Millay (or Vincent as she is commonly called), is a very passionate poet. I wavered on my feelings towards her a number of times--which I believe looking back makes sense. She seemed very emotional and immature. Yet, there were times she was very wise and helpful. On the other hand, I adored Laura. She has been shunned by her community and is doing the best she can to support herself and daughter. She just deals with her lot in life and tries to almost hide from the town. I wanted good things for her and I wanted her to stand up for herself. I wished her sister Marie would have been more observant to what Laura was going through. Millay really was good for Laura even though she didn't realize it at the time. FALLEN BEAUTY reminded me a bit of Peyton Place (the movie, I haven't read the book). The town is judgmental and in everyone's business and there is always one woman who takes it upon herself to bring others down. And oh the the surprises!!! Once again, Erika Robuck writes a suburb novel bringing a historical writer to life. I will say, the first few chapters were more impassioned than I was prepared for. Robuck plunges right in and lets the reader understand the rawness of Millay. Millay was clearly intuned with her sexuality and allowed it as her muse to create stunning poetry. Robuck's writing is breathtaking and captivating. She does justice to the poet. FALLEN BEAUTY took my breath away, I did not want to put it down. As I read, I was 'in' Millay/Laura's world. By far the best book I've read this year and my guess it will be one of the best books I'll read this year. Robuck is an amazing writer, breathing life into historic writers. Do not miss this book!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Excellent story that is well written. I will read more by this author.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
    Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Two very different characters take turns moving this story along, one is the famous poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (goes by Vincent) and the other is a woman from the small town right near where Edna lives - Laura.  Both took turns during each chapter telling their side of the story in the small town and how they both felt like outsiders in this close knit community.   I absolutely adored Laura's story from the very beginning - the fact that just one night changed her life and due to the time that she is living in, the consequences put her on the outside of society and threatened her career.  Vincent on the other hand was hard to read, at one moment I had to look her up and read her wikipedia page just to make sure I was reading everything correctly, she was definitely on the artsy side and since I am not such a fan of poetry in general, it was not interesting to see how she gained her inspiration for her poetry - BUT I did enjoy her moments when she interact with Laura.  SO even though I didn't love the character, it didn't keep me from enjoying the book.  
    Justpeachy1 More than 1 year ago
    Erika Robuck's latest book Fallen Beauty is a story in contrasts. The life of a small town, single mother and seamstress with the excessive and often selfish life of the renowned poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Though Millay's poems are highly memorable the story of her life is less so. But it comes alive under Robuck's pen as she balances and counter-balances the similarities and differences between these two woman, one fictional and one historical. Robuck's research is impeccable and her sense of story is just what the reader is looking for. A great new book, by an up and coming writer in the historical fiction genre. What I liked: I loved Laura. She made a mistake as we are all wont to do at times, but her one night of love cost her a quiet and comfortable future. As a single mother and seamstress, she is pitied, looked down upon and even bullied by the women of the town because she will not reveal Grace's father. Yet she stands against them and provides for her daughter, even when it means dropping her own standards to work for Millay. She was tenacious and loving and all she wanted was love and family. My heart ached at the way she was treated, but she kept her head up and the ending is so emotional and poignant that readers will become a fan of this author on the spot. Robuck's portrayal of Edna St. Vincent Millay elicited a somewhat different experience with this character. Her poems are organic and beautiful, the words flowing with a richness that was unprecedented in poetry, but her life was anything but conventional. Millay was selfish, extravagant, she lived for pleasure and experience at the detriment to all of those around her. I wanted to like this character, to find some redeeming grace in her, but there simply was none. And in the end that was what made her special. Robuck doesn't sugar coat the kind of woman Millay was in order to make the story more palatable. She just brings her life, will all of her flaws intact. She may have been harsh, but she was a realist and in she shows Laura a side of herself that she never knew existed. It just goes to show we can learn something from even the most unconventional of sources. I simply loved this story for it's beauty and historical background. I liked the fact that the author seamlessly ties the stories of these two women together. Emotionally Laura's story tugged at my heart, mentally Millay's sharpness and willingness to put into words what no one else would voice challenged me. It was a a book I won't soon forget nor will anyone who chooses to read it. What I didn't like: I can't find anything to put in this section. I truly enjoyed this book, though there were sections that made me uncomfortable, but that's all in the hallmark of a good author. Bottom Line: Historical fiction lover's will eat this one up. It has a good historical backbone and adds and emotional impact that is both heart rending and engrossing. Read this one, it might be out of your comfort zone, but that's the beauty in it.
    Jasmyn9 More than 1 year ago
    When I first started Fallen Beauty I thought the story was going to be about heart break, but I was so wrong. Taking me back in time to the late twenties, where times were changing quickly (but not quick enough for some), I was captivated by everything and everyone. Laura is a character that we can all latch on to for different reasons, and as she grows into a such a wonderful person I was constantly amazed, but at the same time she remains incredible, beautifully flawed.  Vincent Millay is her perfect foil. Living life hard, fast, and rough, she is addicted to the rush of something new. Laura is at first just a pretty new shiny toy for the famous poet, but something about her changes even the most wild thoughs in Vincent's head. They become friends of a sort and I never would have imagined the life lessons they manage to learn from each other.  Fallen Beauty was not about a broken heart. It was about the power to mend hearts and minds and learn to live with others (no matter how different they may be).  *This book was received in exchange for an honest review* 
    booknerdDS More than 1 year ago
    I have to confess when I started reading this book I was fill with dread, I couldn’t figure out what was going on or how Laura Kelley had anything to do with the bohemian poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Also, because the stories went back and forth from Laura to St. Vincent Millay I was frustrated because I did not understand why they were even in the same book. Well, I’m so glad I “toughed” it out the first couple of pages. Reading this was such an amazing experience! Erika Robuck is a truly talented, artistic, craftswoman in storytelling. There are scenes in this book that are imprinted in mind. Her wording and descriptions, of people, places and experiences-it felt lyrical. Now onto these two fascinating women: Laura Kelley and the Bohemian poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Laura is a young woman, she lives in a very small town, Chatham, NY. When the story begins, Laura is madly in love, she is experiencing all the emotions of first love. Laura finds herself in a very difficult situation when she finds out she is pregnant, her lover, a well-respected member of their town can be of no help to her. Having a child outside of marriage in the 1930’s was basically like having a scarlet letter placed on you. (I personally loved that the author kept his identity a secret, and once I found out who he was, I went back and re-read many of the scenes they shared). Laura, is basically alone and quickly becomes an outcast in her small community. Although her sister, Marie, often presses her to reveal the identity of her “lover” Laura describes it as “a love so wrong it shouldn’t exist”. The famous poet St. Vincent Millay is quit a character, it is easy to see why anyone would want to write about her because there were so many layers to her. She is an accomplished poet and also a woman that is very ahead of her time and refuses any types of restrictions. Although she is married and deeply in love with her husband, Eugen, that does not stop her from experimenting with other lovers. She has no restrictions when it comes to men or women. Her husband, every supportive of her and her talent is very loving and excepting. He understands Millay’s needs and openly celebrates them. How do these two women even share a story? I absolutely loved this story and thought this was so fantastic. Both are woman, who are outcasts and looked down on, are enjoyable characters. I thought the author really captured the mind of St. Vincent Millay and her complexities, her vanities, her excesses. I also loved how she unraveled Laura. Although, Laura is fictional she makes her real and equally as complex. St. Vincent Millay gives Laura work that she badly needs. Laura, although an accomplished seamstress is struggling to provide for herself. Their friendship and relationship proves to be more than the town can tolerate. Robuck really pushes the limits in this fascinating book and makes you question loyalty, love and propriety.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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