Gilded Age: A Novel

Gilded Age: A Novel

by Claire McMillan

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Overview

Intelligent, witty, and poignant, Gilded Age presents a modern Edith Wharton heroine—dramatically beautiful, socially prominent, and just a bit unconventional—whose return to the hothouse of Cleveland society revives rivalries, raises eyebrows, and reveals the tender vulnerabilities of a woman struggling to reconcile her desire for independence and her need for love.

ELEANOR HART had made a brilliant marriage in New York, but it ended in a scandalous divorce and thirty days in Sierra Tucson rehab. Now she finds that, despite feminist lip service, she will still need a husband to be socially complete. A woman’s sexual reputation matters, and so does her family name. Ellie must navigate the treacherous social terrain where old money meets new: charitable benefits and tequila body shots, inherited diamonds and viper-bite lip piercings, country house weekends and sexting. She finds that her beauty is a powerful tool in this world, but it has its limitations, even liabilities. Through one misstep after another, Ellie mishandles her second act. Her options narrow, her future prospects contract, until she faces a desperate choice.

With a keen eye for the perfect detail and a heart big enough to embrace those she observes, Claire McMillan has written an assured and revelatory debut novel about class, gender, and the timeless conundrum of femininity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451640496
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 06/12/2012
Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,098,556
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Claire McMillan is the author of Gilded Age and The Necklace. She is the 2017-18 Cuyahoga County Writer-in- Residence and currently serves as a member of the board of trustees of The Mount, Edith Wharton's home in Lenox, Massachusetts. She practiced law until 2003 and then received her MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. She grew up in Pasadena, California and now lives on her husband’s family farm outside of Cleveland, Ohio with their two children.

Read an Excerpt


• 1 •

The Orchestra

I’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.

“God,” mumbled my husband, leaning his shoulder into mine and whispering in my ear. “Typical.”

“You know him?” I whispered.

“That’s Randall Leforte, the lawyer.”

“I should know him?”

“The ambulance chaser. He’s sued the Cleveland Clinic for millions. He’s as rich as Steve Jobs or those Google guys or something now.”

I remembered seeing him on the cover of Cleveland magazine as our town’s most eligible bachelor; he was photographed leaning up against his Maserati. Charitable and philanthropic boards all over town were vying to get a piece of his money.

At intermission Eleanor slipped into our box, as I knew she would, hugged me, and hugged my husband, Jim.

“Thank God, you’re here. I thought you might be.” She beamed at us. She’d always liked Jim. Most everyone did. My husband’s background of boarding school, Duke, and investment bank on Wall Street made him enough like a good Cleveland son. Yet his southern accent and manners made him an antebellum exotic. There is nothing certain Clevelanders like more than a whiff of a tattered but glorious past hanging about a person. Luckily that particular southern trait rolled off Jim as languidly as his drawl.

William and Jim led us out of the box to the patrons’ dining room, talking about the Indians in the playoffs.

“So William Selden …,” I breathed behind their backs, fishing.

“You’ve known Selden as long as I have. He’s just a friend.”

“Just a friend?” I asked. “An awfully good-looking friend …”

“An awfully good-looking old friend,” Ellie said with a smile.

We walked into the dark paneled room behind the boxes where silver samovars of coffee and a bar awaited. I took two gingersnap cookies, their recipe unchanged since 1931, off a SÈvres tray. Ginger is good for nausea and in my condition I’d found a new sweet tooth I hadn’t had before. Eleanor eyed me as she drank black coffee.

“Eating for two,” I said.

“My mom told me. Congrats.” Her tone was flat with disinterest.

“Well, don’t jump up and down or anything,” I said, joking but feeling stung. Ellie, I knew, was not keen on children. But I thought at least she could muster some enthusiasm for me.

She smiled. “Oh, I’m happy for you. You know how I feel.” It was as if she’d said, “That dress looks great on you; I’d never be caught dead in the thing.”

It didn’t satisfy.

“You and Jim will make wonderful parents,” she said listlessly as she scanned the room.

I’d forgotten this part of Ellie in the years since I’d last seen her. She was self-concerned, always had been, in a way that could be annoyingly juvenile. Oddly enough it was also one of the things that made me feel comfortable around her. Ellie made no pretense about who she was or what she thought. Given the Cleveland world I navigated, anyone who was straightforward, even if it was straightforwardly self-centered, was refreshing. You always knew where you stood with her, which is much more than I can say for a good number of people on my contact list. “Tell me about the conductor,” she said.

I swallowed a large bite. “You know I’m a musical illiterate. But everyone says he’s wonderful. Lovely accent—Austrian or something. I heard him interviewed on the radio once—”

“No, no, you know what I mean,” she said in a lowered voice.

I must admit that I laughed in her face. Leave it to Eleanor to be searching out men at the orchestra. Most men in the boxes were married, upwards of sixty, or both. I wondered that she didn’t ask about Randall Leforte, given his obvious interest in her. In any case, she’d zeroed in on the man who’d been in front of her for the last hour, the conductor.

“Married,” I said. “Happily, I think. There’s a child and such.”

Eleanor shrugged and resumed scanning the room. “You know what I kept thinking as I sat there?” she asked. “I kept thinking that all these people, their job is to do something they love. Can you even imagine it? The dedication, the discipline, the practice—you couldn’t do it if you didn’t have passion. And that’s what they get to do with their lives. Something they have real passion for. The passionate life. I wish I had that.”

“Don’t we all,” I said.

“Or to have a skill like that. To be one of the best in the world at something.”

“You’re the best in the world at being fabulous,” I said. I meant it truly, and lightly, but it came out as condescending.

“When’s the last time you felt passion?” she asked a bit aggressively.

I’d touched a nerve. Her questioning the passion in my life was the old bias that escaped Clevelanders have against the Midwest. The assumption was that you couldn’t have passion in Cleveland. It raised my ire a bit, yes. And while I thought this a little provincial, I guess I knew what she was getting at as it related to me. My prospects at the big-five accounting firm where I’d worked before my marriage had never been my life’s passion. Recently, I’d started to feel my marriage and a coming child might help me in this area. Not in a Betty Crocker, Phyllis Schlafly type of way, but in the way that I now had someone I could help along in life, a marriage to invest in. This baby, I hoped, might add to that sense. People say nothing else is important once your child is born, and part of me was banking on this. In any case, I wanted to put Ellie at ease. She’d just returned, and it was the first time I’d seen her since her divorce. I pointed to my waist, just ever so slightly showing, and though I knew it was not what she meant I said, “Well, there was at least one night of passion.”

Eleanor relaxed and laughed. “It seems like no time has passed since last I saw you.”

“That’s how Cleveland is,” I said, smiling, glad the situation was defused.

“It’s good to be back. These last six months have been pretty hard.” She sipped her coffee.

It was then that Jim seemed to materialize at my arm with Randall Leforte in tow and introduced him to Ellie. Something in Jim’s posture made him seem pleased that he could introduce them. Whether he was proud of knowing Ellie or glad to be seen with one of the sharpest litigators in town, I didn’t know.

Leforte smiled wide and moved in close as he took Ellie’s hand. It was fascinating to watch—and I’d been watching since we were children—the pull she had over men. I thought he might bend over her hand and kiss it. He smelled like patchouli, a hippie-ish, slightly dirty smell that didn’t mesh at all with his polished exterior. He clasped her hand and released it, his eyes wandering up and down her body, as if he’d like to do so much more than shake her hand.

Ellie was, of course, aware of the effect she had on Leforte. But it didn’t seem to please her. It seemed to bore her. She was looking for Selden, who was across the room talking to a group of men, each of them old enough to be his father. I felt sure they were discussing the financial state of the orchestra, the need for younger patrons.

“Mahler’s my favorite,” Leforte said, moving in close to Ellie. “Though I prefer Titan.”

Ellie rocked back and forth on her feet, looking like she was ready to spring for an exit, and I couldn’t figure out why. Leforte was attractive and certainly some chitchat with him wouldn’t hurt.

“You mean his First Symphony?” she asked.

“Yes, I guess I do,” he said in a hearty tone as he shifted closer to her, almost turning his back to me, trying to ease me out of the conversation and gain some privacy until Betsy Dorset interrupted us all.

Betsy Dorset wore trim black pants, a black long-sleeved T-shirt, and a neon green fleece vest—the type bought at sporting goods stores. Pinned to the fleece was the immense Dorset diamond brooch from the turn of the century, valued—so I’d heard—at half a million dollars. With her kind smile, cropped silver hair, and sensible shoes, she was the very model of a new-millennium Cleveland dowager. Her son, Dan, and I were the same age and had been at school together.

She hugged Jim and me and then made a great fuss over Eleanor, whom she’d known as a baby. Clevelanders of a certain age love few things more than one of their own returning home, and Ellie had the satisfying air of the prodigal about her.

Just as Randall was quietly trying to slip away unnoticed, Betsy demanded an introduction, and Jim obliged.

“Oh, but I know you from your billboard,” Betsy said, shaking his hand.

“Billboard?” Eleanor blurted before she could censor herself.

“Mr. Leforte has a billboard just as you come into downtown on the Innerbelt,” Betsy said to Eleanor. “I must admit it doesn’t do you justice,” she said to Randall. She said it in a flirty, confidential tone, but I knew she’d meant it not at all nicely. She sat on the board of the Cleveland Clinic; I’m sure she’d been forced to deal with Leforte, his clients, and their demands for legal settlements. She knew exactly who he was. “It has your eight-hundred number on it,” she added brightly. “Doesn’t it, Mr. Leforte?”

The chimes rang, calling us back to our seats for the second half of the music. Leforte made a quick exit.

“That man,” Betsy said in a hushed voice as she hugged me goodbye. “Getting rich off hospitals and others’ misfortunes. It’s the height of poor taste.” And she wafted off in a cloud of Joy perfume.

“I’ll come see you next week,” Eleanor said as Selden took her arm to lead her back to the box.

“Come on Wednesday,” I said. “Stay for dinner if you like.” Jim clasped my hand and steered me back to the box with my family’s name painted in swirling gold script over the door. The box my family has occupied since the hall opened in 1931.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Looking for a beach read with a touch of literary pedigree? . . . [A] rich romp of a read.”Elle

"Great fun, an over-the-top social farce, like Gossip Girl for grown people."—Boston Globe

"McMillan, a facile writer 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

“McMillan reimagines Wharton’s The House of Mirth as a modern story set amid the upper crust of Cleveland instead of New York. The new setting works brilliantly. While the book hews to the original in terms of plot, this is no literary parlor trick: The dialogue is sharp and witty, and the characters inhabit a world of their own making. It’s a tragic comedy that’s alternately hilarious and heartbreaking.”—Romantic Times

“A hard-edged look at the . . . elite of modern-day Cleveland . . . While the novel tips its hat to House of Mirth, a simple comparison doesn’t do McMillan justice.”—Publishers Weekly

“McMillan cleverly uses Wharton’s classic novel to draw parallels between the social mores of two starkly different centuries. . . . An engrossing first novel.”—Library Journal

“Marvelous . . . it is McMillan’s deft touch with the complexities of male-female relationships that . . . give Gilded Age real depth. . . . As a stand-alone novel this works in every sense.”Portland Book Review

"With a keen eye for the perfect detail and a heart big enough to embrace those she observes, Claire McMillan has written an assured and revelatory debut novel about class, gender, and the timeless conundrum of femininity."—Bookreporter.com

“Entertaining and thought-provoking . . . mature and deft. . . . An engrossing reinterpretation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.—ShelfAwareness.com

“If Edith Wharton had lived in the contemporary Midwest, 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

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Gilded Age includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Claire McMillan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Introduction

Cleveland, like many rust belt cities at the dawn of the twentieth century, was an industrial juggernaut fueled by coal, steel, and shipping on the Great Lakes. The wealth from this commerce set up a society of leading civic families. Generations later, these original family names are still Cleveland’s elite, bonded together through an unspoken code of behavior and a web of interwoven relationships. When failed iconoclast Ellie Hart returns to her hometown after divorce and scandal, she challenges this cosseted group’s priorities, morals, and expectations. In this modern retelling of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, feminism, friendship, and the unwritten laws of society are braided together and showcased in this beautifully descriptive, inquisitive novel about a woman trying to change her fate.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. In parts of this novel, there is first-person narration from an unnamed woman: a wife, friend, and mother-to-be. In other parts there is a third-person narrator. Did you prefer one style of narration to the other? Did you have any questions about the narrator that were left unanswered?

2. Do you like and trust the narrator of the novel? Is she always honest with herself and others? What do you think motivates her?

3. How much of an impact do the judgments and actions of the narrator have on how you feel about the people and events she describes? Does she like her friends?

4. Is Ellie a feminist? What are her views on marriage and being a wife? Do they sync with her actions? Did you relate to any of her sentiments?

5. Do you think every social group, every society, has “victims” and “victors”? Did society hurt Ellie, or did she hurt herself?

6. Ellie says to Selden, “Passion is fine…What I really want is freedom.” Is she being genuine when she says this? Does she want freedom consistently through the novel? If you could give Ellie one piece of advice, what would it be?

7. What mistakes does Ellie make? Do you feel sympathetic to her situation? How does her social circle judge her?

8. Why does Ellie resist Randall Leforte’s advances and reject his proposal? Why does she find him so cringe-worthy, when in fact he is both handsome and wealthy?

9. When Selden binds Ellie’s wrist with her ribbon, and she wears it, what does it mean to him? To her? Are they bound together through anything more than sexual attraction?

10. The narrator says, when chiding herself for not calling Ellie to check in, “Funny that with a friend that old I’d need to gin myself up to call her.” What does it say about their friendship? Have you ever felt that way about a friend?

11. Do you think that the narrator’s friendship with Ellie would have persevered if Ellie hadn’t betrayed her trust?

12. What do you think could have saved Ellie?

13. If you’ve read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, how does this modernized version compare?

14. Consider the title, Gilded Age, now that you’ve finished the novel. Has the meaning changed in any way?


Enhance Your Book Club

1. A scene in the book describes a benefit at the Cleveland Museum of Art where select members dress up and pose as famous pieces of art. What pieces of art would you and the other members of your book club best embody? Discuss with your group.

2. Read aloud the first chapter from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth at your book club. Compare and contrast Claire McMillan’s updated version in chapter two of Gilded Age.

A Conversation with Claire McMillan

What initially drew you to Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth and inspired you to update this classic?

Edith Wharton has always been one of my very favorite authors and The House of Mirth is a favorite of her work. I read it first in college, and it made such an impression—one of those books that you read at the exactly right time. A few years ago my husband gave me a first edition bound published copy. We were discussing why I like Wharton’s work so much, and I remember saying that everything she wrote about still was happening today. And the idea for the update was born.

What was your process for modernizing the story? How did you decide what scenes to rework or to leave out?

I reread the book through again once, and then I placed it next to me as I wrote. If a scene stood out in my mind, such as Lily and Selden in his apartment or the tableaux vivants scene, it was included. I told myself at the start that I didn’t have to kill her in the end if I didn’t want to. I actually attempted to write a happy ending for Ellie and William, and it was awful.

Why Cleveland? Are you from the Midwest? What is it about the Midwest that makes it a compelling setting for this novel?

I grew up in Pasadena, outside of Los Angeles. Pasadena and Shaker Heights were built around the same time in the 1920s and they look quite similar—though Pasadena has palm trees and Cleveland, snow. My husband is the native Clevelander, and “imported” me after we married. I obviously love Cleveland and find it inspiring. It has faded grandeur and a nostalgia for better days that permeates. There is a fierce kind of pride about Clevelanders, and yet they run down their city harder than any outsider. The cultural institutions such as the museum and the orchestra are incredible, and of course I snobbishly knew nothing of them until I moved here. The sense of community is both warm and practical—very Midwestern in attitude.

In Gilded Age, Ellie is a divorcee and in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. Why did you decide these traits were important to her character?

In the original, Lily Bart is on the cusp of becoming a spinster and this is a scandalous, almost semi-tragic thing for her. I tried to think of some traits to give Ellie the same sort of air about her. Though divorce is common now, it’s still considered gossip fodder. I added in her drug use because in the original Lily smokes and gambles, which the men in her circle do too. However for Lily these vices make her outre, while for the men these activities are par for the course. I wanted to hint at a double standard I believe exists today concerning partying and women. If men experiment or even if they have a problem, they’re usually looked at as bad boys or sowing wild oats, an extreme example is Charlie Sheen. While I think women who get in trouble with drugs are judged much more harshly and differently, i.e. Lindsay Lohan. And of course throughout House of Mirth, Lily begins to use a sleeping potion culminating in her tragic end. I gave Ellie a substance problem to echo this as well.

How would you describe the narrator of this novel? Do you prefer writing in the first-person or third-person?

The narrator is a spectator to what is really Ellie and Selden’s story. I was thinking very much about Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby when I wrote her. Of course she has her own story going, as well as what she witnesses. I’m not sure I have a preference for writing from one point of view over the other. To me they both have their advantages but also limitations that have to be wrangled.

You pepper the novel with contemporary stylistic touches like text messages, social media references, and email correspondence. Is this a direct parallel to letter-writing in centuries past? In your opinion, is there a difference when you are writing in these modern mediums?

Letters serve as a pivotal plot point in the original book, both their contents and their existence as physical objects. I wanted to make sure my update felt realistic so I used the mediums we use daily. Emails are like the new millennium letters to me. It feels like such a glut sometimes that I would love to have someone else deal with them, much like Bertha Dorset ropes Lily into answering her correspondence in the original. Text messaging, also writing on someone’s Facebook wall, have the flavor of leaving calling cards at people’s homes back in the day—a way to signal interest, a desire to start up a friendship, a social nicety, fulfilling an obligation, perhaps a request for a more private conversation.

You received your MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. What was this experience like? What was the most important thing you learned?

Bennington is an incredible place, and I am so grateful and frankly amazed that I had the opportunity to study there. When I was admitted, I was still practicing law full time and knew no other writers and few people who cared about books the way I did. Bennington gave me a community of fellow writers. You’d go into the campus bar and people would be discussing novels or poets. You could always strike up a conversation by asking someone what they were reading. I learned so many things, but one thing that stands out was the advice to read authors with whom I don’t have rapport. I had stuck close to reading lots of authors with similar obsessions or world views. I think that’s a pretty natural desire to try and find yourself in a book regardless of the setting or characters. But when I started reading authors who were maybe plowing a field totally unlike mine, it became easier for me to digest the craft of what they were doing and pay attention to how the book was put together, rather than fall under the spell of the story.

Are you planning to write another book?

Yes, I’m working on a new novel, and at least part of it is set in Cleveland in the 1920s.

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