In this “glittering, Gatsby-esque” (Publishers Weekly) novel, two generations of Quincy women—a bewitching Jazz Age beauty and a young lawyer—are bound by a spectacular and mysterious Indian necklace.
Always the black sheep of the tight-knit Quincy clan, Nell is cautious when she’s summoned to the elegantly shabby family manor after her great-aunt Loulou’s death. A cold reception from the family grows chillier when they learn Loulou has left Nell a fantastically valuable heirloom: an ornate necklace from India that Nell finds stashed in a Crown Royal whiskey bag in the back of a dresser. As predatory relatives circle and art experts begin to question the necklace’s provenance, Nell turns to the only person she thinks she can trust—the attractive and ambitious estate lawyer who definitely is not part of the old-money crowd.
More than just a piece of jewelry, the necklace links Nell to a long-buried family secret involving Ambrose Quincy, who brought the necklace home from India in the 1920s as a dramatic gift for May, the woman he intended to marry. Upon his return, he discovered that May had married his brother Ethan, the “good” Quincy, devoted to their father. As a gesture of friendship, Ambrose gave May the necklace anyway.
Crisp as a gin martini, fresh as a twist of lime, The Necklace is the charming and intoxicating story “written with wit, compassion, and a meticulous attention to period and cultural detail” (Kirkus Reviews) of long-simmering family resentments and a young woman who inherits a secret much more valuable than a legendary necklace.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.37(h) x 1.00(d)|
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
Before it all begins, Nell looks up at the arched gables, hesitates at the heavy front door. Everything here is a test. No Quincy, not even a peripheral one, knocks unless she aggressively wants to announce herself. A true Quincy would bound in, secure in her welcome. But Nell creaks open the door and silently slips through like an intruder.
Lighted by the wavy leaded glass windows, a taxidermy antelope head gazes down with hazy glass eyes. An Indian blackbuck—she thinks someone told her this as a child. The ears show patches, as if something’s been nibbling them. Bits of fur and dust fuzz the floor beneath it. A time-warp feeling settles over Nell like weather. She sneezes.
Her cousin Pansy looks over from the living room and mouths “Gesundheit,” then turns back to the small group of women Nell should recognize but doesn’t, no doubt in conference over last-minute details for Loulou’s wake tomorrow.
What does one call Quincys in multiple? A clutch? That’s eggs. A murder? That’s crows. A judgment? That’s perfect. A judgment of Quincys brings to mind her ancestor Increase Quincy and his infamous verdicts at Salem, and makes her wonder if judgment is encoded in the Quincy double helix.
She feels an arm around her waist and a kiss on her cheek. “Nell-bell.” Her cousin Emerson, Pansy’s younger brother, is Nell’s age and adheres to the male Quincy uniform of dark suit and tie. Despite this, he’s rumpled. His tie with a pattern of tiny clocks is fraying at the wide end. He smells like he’s been here for at least a few Old Grand-Dads.
“Hey.” She gives his waist an extra squeeze, and lets it go that he knows she hates that nickname. She hasn’t seen him in years. Then again, a few years is not particularly long between her and the Quincys.
Her parents preferred living in Oregon, where they’d met, and where Nell lives now. They’d put a country between themselves and the Quincys reflexively sizing them up. Despite this removal, Nell’s mother would insist they make a pilgrimage here most summers. She’d instruct Nell for the length of the car ride from the airport to use her best manners—please, thank you, pass the hors d’oeuvres before taking one for yourself. She’d turn fully in her seat, lean over the armrest, and inspect Nell’s fingernails for dirt while her father drove.
A transformation would come over her parents here. Her mother would become brittle, short with everyone, even Nell’s father, whom she adored. Her usually witty and erudite father would go silent. They’d both drink bourbon at lunch, something Nell never saw them do anywhere else. And Aunt Loulou, as her mother called her, would lead everyone into that big dining room for luncheon. She’d seat herself at the head of a table that gleamed with silver and yellowing brocade and proceed to dominate the conversation with the self-assurance of a favorite child who had never been told to shut up. It was here she’d dish out what Nell’s father witheringly referred to as “Loulou Lessons.”
“Only wear fur between Halloween and Valentine’s Day,” Loulou had said once when Nell was seated next to her. An unusual honor. Loulou had a confidential, chummy tone in her voice that day. Nell had been conscious of her table manners and had taken miniscule bites. She still can’t remember what she ate. The glamour of the statement had delighted her, though now she wonders at imparting this lesson to a ten-year-old. Her mother’s lips grew tight across the table. She volunteered at the wildlife animal sanctuary. No one they knew in Oregon wore fur. But this piece of advice seemed important to Nell if she were to become a Quincy-type grown-up. One would have furs, and of course one would follow the rules for wearing them.
“Red shoes should really only be worn by very small children and prostitutes,” Loulou said to Nell’s mother once when she thought Nell was out of earshot. “Don’t you think she’s getting a little old for those?” Though Nell didn’t know what a prostitute was, she was no baby and she’d refused to wear the red patent Mary Janes after that, much to her mother’s exasperation. Until then, they’d been favorites.
And the one she could never remember without a hot flush, even now, happened on the same day as the fur instructions. “Picking one’s teeth should be done in private, dear,” Loulou had stage-whispered loud enough that everyone at the table heard. “Like most pleasurable things.” She’d turned to Nell’s mother. “Really, she should know the basics, shouldn’t she?” As Nell’s ears reddened, she’d watched in baffled delight as her mother stuck her finger in her mouth, aiming toward a back molar. Her father had choked on his bourbon, silently laughing.
Today, Emerson steers Nell by the arm into the flower room, which has always served as the bar, and tries to get her to drink whiskey with him, though it’s only lunchtime. She accepts a glass. It’s easier than openly refusing.
“Is Vlad here?” she asks. Emerson’s partner, Vlad, works in the conservation department of the Met and is a great favorite of all Quincys. He’d come close to walking away after demanding that Emerson stop being ashamed and come out to the family. Nell still couldn’t believe Emerson had manned up and brought Vlad to the farm. “This is a farm?” Vlad had asked. Emerson had explained to his Czech lover, product of a communist childhood, the concept of a gentleman’s farm.
“No, he’s not,” Emerson says now, sadly. “Work. But he wanted to come. They were buds, you know.”
Nell did know. Vlad had managed to charm Loulou with his European manners and wide knowledge of art.
“I’m not a hayseed,” she’d scolded Emerson after Vlad’s first visit. “Why have you kept him away?”
“So that’s why you’ve started early,” Nell says now. “If he were here, he wouldn’t allow it.”
“If he were here, I wouldn’t need it.”
Nell’s wishing she also had someone with her, a plus one, a partner, a human shield. Lately, she’s been accepting of her single fate, embracing of it even, and it didn’t chafe. But it’s days like today that she wishes she had an effective distraction at her side—a charming and successful husband maybe, or a cherubic and precocious child.
Glad of her little detour with Emerson, Nell has a chance to take it all in. The Canaletto over the living room mantel is hanging next to a calendar from the local arboretum Scotch-taped to the wall. The carved jade emperor’s bowl sits side by side with a plastic candy dish in the shape of a cow, which moos when anyone reaches for a treat. The two-foot high stack of National Geographics from the sixties still stands in front of the bookshelf that holds a complete set of first editions of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and poems—her cousin’s namesake and a distant Quincy relative. It’s a tableau from her childhood preserved intact—from the highball glass sweating and leaving rings on the marquetry table to the Ritz crackers and cheddar cheese on a chipped demi porcelain dish. She’s underestimated the impact of seeing it again. And the scent of the place—mildew mixed with Windex—sends her neurons firing down a wormhole that strips away decades so she is a girl again, self-conscious and bewildered and filled with a fraught desire to belong.
She’d been careful never to let on to her mother that she was intrigued by this side of the family. Since earliest remembering she has known where her loyalties should lie. Despite her mother’s efforts to impart her own reticence, Nell’s feelings for the Quincys have always been tinged with never-admitted longing and a secret pride.
As she walks into the living room now, her uncle Baldwin is sunken into one end of the loveseat listening to the preparations for tomorrow’s services, an untouched glass of something amber at his side.
“Saved a place for you right here,” he says, inclining his head without dropping a stitch as he works on a painted needlepoint canvas depicting an elaborate buckeye tree. Needlepointing allowed him all sorts of cover at family gatherings. He could sit in the corner and pretend he wasn’t eavesdropping or didn’t hear a question, or exit a conversation by concentrating on his work. And damn anyone who dared to so much as raise an eyebrow at his traditionally “feminine” hobby. It was just the sort of eccentricity born of privilege that Baldwin enjoyed flaunting.
“Why, men make the best stitchers,” he’d say, his blunt fingers flying over patterns of sailing flags or hunting dogs. There was a wink in it, an acknowledgment that unless you were a Quincy, you probably wouldn’t know about such things.
He’d sent Nell’s mother a pillow one Christmas depicting what was supposedly the family crest.
“Good Lord,” she’d said when she’d opened it, setting it aside quickly and barely looking at it. Though she’d send a gushing thank-you note, Nell knew. Nell had squirrelled away the pillow in her room, blending it in with her menagerie of stuffed animals. She has no idea where it is now.
Nell settles in next to Baldwin, glad for his rapid-fire questions about her life, which cover any awkwardness.
“Still working so hard or have you found time to hike? Isn’t that what you Oregonians do out there? Go hiking in the forest? Do you eat the salmon or have you become one of those vegans?” He is too restrained to nose around in her romantic life. Whether it’s good breeding or because his wife, her aunt Sharon, ran off with a fly-fishing instructor a decade ago and now lives in Wyoming, she couldn’t say. Pansy and the female relatives have stopped talking about their plans for tomorrow, listening in on Nell’s debriefing.
Nell can’t help but feel that Baldwin’s faux chumminess and the room’s silent spotlight marks her as the outsider, the guest. “We don’t actually belong there,” her mother would say with a little relieved sigh when they’d settle into their seats on the plane back to Portland.
When the wireless doorbell rings, a quotidian digital buzz that replaced the old chimes years ago, Nell’s relieved. A true non-Quincy has arrived.
From the formal tone of his emails inviting her to this meeting, Nell expected someone older. But the estate attorney, Louis Morrell, is about her age. His boring suit and subdued tie contrast with his shaved head and corded neck, which indicate he might spend some regular time at the gym. The effect is of a Mafia don’s right-hand man, a true consigliere, and not at all the sort of lawyer Nell imagines Loulou hiring. A homegrown boy, Nell’s guessing, but she reminds herself about books and covers.
He removes his suit coat and throws it on the long bench near the fireplace, as if he’s home from a long day at work. “Louis,” he says, pronouncing it “Louie.” “Like the song.” He walks toward Nell with an arm extended, welcoming her as if he owns the place. “Great to see you, Nell. You’re the only one I haven’t met yet.” A heavy gold link bracelet shines next to his shirt cuff.
She shakes his hand and cuts her eyes to Pansy for confirmation. (“Really? This guy?”)
Pansy’s knowing smirk gives Nell a reassuring sense of coziness—a judgment of Quincys, indeed.
Pansy doesn’t pull her punches for anyone. Even as kids, she often duped the gullible and ditched the slow, including the younger Nell. Uncle Baldwin had given her the name Pansy thinking it old-fashioned—harkening to some long-dead aunt and a flower. The name had made it a virtual certainty Pansy would grow up to be a badass. Five feet ten inches of marathon-honed control, her Patagonia fleece and practical running clothes, even at a meeting like this, convey her complete comfort in her surroundings and telegraph that she’s up for anything coming her way—a run, lifting heavy objects, combat. Next to her, Nell feels conspicuous in the tailored clothes she bought especially for this trip, hoping they’d convey an air of easy appropriateness.
Emerson stands. “Great to see you again.” They do that one-armed man-hug thing.
So, clearly Louis has been around awhile.
Baldwin manages to stop needlepointing long enough to raise three fingers and shake Louis’s hand, but he doesn’t get out of his seat. It gives Nell pause, considering her usually gregarious uncle. And then Louis makes his way around the room, greeting Pansy’s companions in order of importance, clearly in on the Quincy family hierarchy.
By unspoken cue, they leave after greeting Louis. None of them are invited to this meeting. Nell dives a hand into her purse for a piece of nicotine gum, but pauses. “Never chew gum,” Loulou would say. “You look like a cow with a cud.”
Pansy’s smile disappears as she closes the front hall door behind the exiting relatives. “I’m the only one around here who’s planning anything. I’m, like, the matriarch now, or something.” She throws herself on a low sofa and puts her feet up on the butler table, mindless of the loose hinges.
“You’re the one in town,” Emerson says. “Settle down.”
“Really?” Pansy asks. “You’ll want to be nicer to me. Connie Rensselaer is making those spinach things for tomorrow. I told her they were your special favorite.”
Emerson groans. Connie Rensselaer’s mini spanakopitas were a bland and soggy mess, which isn’t surprising, given that the Rensselaers aren’t Greek and none of them have ever cared a whit about food despite having “hot and cold running help,” as Loulou used to say.
“You did not.”
“No, I didn’t,” she admits. “But don’t tempt me. I told her the caterers were taking care of everything, but she insisted.”
If Louis hears this sibling back and forth, he doesn’t show it, and Nell recognizes a fellow pro. She’s honed similar political skills in depositions and courtrooms and knows exactly how much effort is required to make this look natural. As she watches his finesse, she decides that if one of the most expensive firms in town, plus Loulou—who’d been a notorious snob—can trust him, then she’ll keep an open mind.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Louis says, calling this meeting to attention. Tactfully dealing with death is a requirement in his area of law. He sits on an overstuffed chintz loveseat, the bottomed-out springs forcing his knees up to his chest as he roots through a document bag, unpacking clipped stacks of paper onto the floor until Pansy clears the coffee table.
Emerson slumps in his chair, the caning long ago busted out on the sides. He scrolls through his phone, so big it’s like a piece of toast. Emerson works for one of the big New York banks, a fact Baldwin enjoys strategically wedging into conversations. He’s taken a hit in the downturn, but managed to save his job by working twice as hard. His phone is now an appendage.
His slumped posture and distracted manner say “I don’t see why we have to do any of this.” His attention to his phone says “We all already know what’s in these documents.” And Nell feels that familiar mix of envy and yearning she’s often felt when confronted with Emerson’s place in the family.
Louis’s email had said he wanted the three cousins, Emerson, Pansy, and Nell, here to go over procedure and process since they’d be in town already for the memorial service and wake. He’d have private meetings with each of them later.
He passes out copies of the will. In her reply email, Nell had requested to be given a copy as right at this meeting and the others had followed on. She’d probably annoyed this Louis lawyer with that, but the pro shows no inkling of it as he hands her a stack.
As a warm-up, he walks them through small gifts to the nurses first, then moves on to a few charities where Loulou had long served on the board, followed by token legacies for well-remembered godchildren. She had about a half dozen of them. It’s not something they need to go over, and Nell recognizes that he’s leading them in slowly. After a diplomatic amount of time, and proper mutterings about the propriety of all this, Louis continues.
“The firm has been privileged to work with this family. This is just going to be a preliminary discussion about the timelines moving forward.” He passes out more papers, which are flipped and shuffled in earnest.
“And as you know, the firm has a long track record with families such as yours—”
“Nell’s the executor?” Pansy’s voice is calm, her back ramrod straight, feet on the floor now. “Daddy, did you know?” Like a jailhouse lawyer who’s picked up enough law to advocate for his fellow inmates, being an old-line WASP means Pansy’s picked up enough legalese to read a will. She looks at her father. “What does that mean?”
They’ve all zeroed in on Nell’s status first. Nell feels the effort they’ve been putting into appearing friendly while they were controlling their curiosity. She rifles the papers in her lap for something to look at, shock and a slight edge of excitement racing through her. She can feel Baldwin’s eyes on her.
He leans back. “I did, honey. Your grandmother and I discussed it.”
“You’ll see,” Louis says, cutting off this topic, “she left very specific bequests to each of you.”
The prized Canaletto goes to Emerson, along with the first-edition Emersons, which is only fitting.
To Pansy she’s left the jewelry in a safe-deposit box downtown. Louis hands Pansy a tiny key and a printout of passcodes and PINs.
And to Nell she’s left a necklace.
“We haven’t managed to find it yet,” Louis is saying to her. “But I’m sure it’s here somewhere. I apologize,” he says, perhaps noticing Nell sit up straighter as her lawyer brain kicks into gear. “But your grandmother—” Nell starts at the word; she was Aunt Loulou to her. “Sorry, your great-aunt was easily upset at the end and it was decided it was best not to have a bunch of strangers in the house looking for it.” It’s then that Nell’s lawyer armor fully slips on, because if he were her associate, he’d be getting a dressing-down right now. As the lawyer for the estate, he should be on this. He should have made sure someone found it, whether or not Loulou was acting cranky.
“She was pretty loony tunes at the end,” Baldwin says to Nell, and then turns to his children and says, more loudly, “She was hoarding scrap silver.”
“We did manage to clean out the basement. We had a team that was very sensitive,” Louis says directly to Nell, as if she is already in charge.
“Found a whole room filled with nothing but quart mason jars filled with rancid water, like a typhoid version of an air-raid shelter,” Baldwin is saying. “And then the scrap silver, of course.” He nods his head at Louis. “Bins and bins of it. There was a shoebox with some gold Krugerrands, too. Couple of cases of Chartreuse as well.”
Nell’s picturing Ali Baba’s cave in that dirt-floor basement, but filled with gold formerly under international sanction, tarnished flatware, and liquor that tastes like a Swiss cough drop.
“The gold has been valued and included in the statements,” Louis says, trying to sound thorough. “The silver is going to be dicey.”
“She was concerned with the collapse of Western civilization, like, legitimately concerned with a coming Armageddon,” Pansy says, and Nell can’t tell if Pansy shares this belief or is just protective of her grandmother.
“Like the zombie apocalypse?” Emerson says, eyes still on his phone. “You guys couldn’t have had her in some blue chips or something?” he says to Louis, who holds up both hands in defense. Lawyers don’t handle investments, and it was Loulou’s money to do with as she liked, however ill-advised. They all know this.
“So who knows if that necklace is real,” Baldwin continues, turning to Nell. “I never saw Mother wear it. Not once.” He stops stitching when he looks up and says, “I think she said it was cursed, but that could just be more bats-in-the-belfry stuff. Seems like you got the delusional gift.”
His quick dismissal of her single legacy makes her feel like this should be expected. She didn’t really think she was here to receive anything legitimate, did she? Nothing besides some leftovers or a mix-up should be expected, even if she is executor.
She can feel Louis watching them all.
Baldwin, of course, gets the house. As the last surviving member of his generation, and Loulou’s sole heir, this is expected. Nell’s mother, who has been dead a decade now, is not mentioned. Nor is her father, which is understood. Loulou claimed he was never a true Quincy, and, as an in-law, he wasn’t. Nell had called him in Italy, and he had refused to come. “Come see me afterward,” he’d said. “You’ll need it.”
“?‘And the residue of my estate,’?” Pansy reads out loud. “?‘Keeping in mind the provisions I have made for my son, Baldwin, and his children in subsequent bequests and gifts, both in this instrument and throughout their lifetimes, blah-blah-blah to be divided and blah-blah by my grandchildren and my grandniece Cornelia Quincy Merrihew.’ Translation?” she says, looking at Louis.
“You split the contents of the house in thirds, notwithstanding the enumerated gifts, of course. The structure itself goes to Baldwin.”
Louis passes around another stack of papers without meeting Baldwin’s eye. “The trusts, and the money therein, remain much as they were when they were established during her lifetime. You’ll see little change there.”
Louis turns to Baldwin. “And you remain executor of those.”
Emerson is scanning his copy, mumbling to himself.
“There’s a bit of money left,” Louis says, nodding toward a stack of paper in Emerson’s hands. “That’s the most recent trust statement from the financial advisors that you asked for.”
“It was intended for her to live on,” Baldwin says, a touch defensively, as Emerson flips to the last pages containing the totals.
“She went through it like spaghetti,” Emerson says under his breath.
“Son,” Baldwin says with a shake of his head.
Pansy turns to her father. “Did you know about this, too?” She rises, unfolding herself in the lanky, double-jointed way of an athlete. “About the contents?”
Baldwin only shrugs at Pansy and then turns to address Nell, though she’s not asked any of the millions of questions whirring through her mind. “If you must know, she asked me if I wanted it all. And I couldn’t lie to her. I don’t. I have everything I need, and I don’t need a bunch of Mother’s old things.” At Pansy’s look, he says, “What? I thought she should do what she wanted with it. I have to say, I never thought she’d gift it to all of you equally.” He turns to Louis and says, “But that was silly of me—”
“As it stands, I know she took a long time considering her options,” Louis interrupts, ready to move this along.
“She always did feel guilty about your mother,” Baldwin continues to Nell in the magnanimous tone of someone secure that he’s gotten everything he wanted.
Nell’s neck feels hot, and she decides to opt for the nicotine gum, even though she’d really like a cigarette, an old habit she’s been able to fend off in times of stress with the gum. What she’d really like is a few moments to step outside and breathe. Even breathing in noxious poison would be better than sitting in this atmosphere.
“She had one of the nurses call very late on a Saturday night,” Louis is saying to Emerson in response to some question about the date of the will. “If you look you’ll see we had the nurse on staff as a witness. I couldn’t come until Monday morning, so she’d even had a few days to think about it, and she was quite clear.” Here he looks Pansy in the eye. “And she was quite lucid when she requested the changes. For good measure, because I knew—” Here he clears his throat. “Because I knew she’d want it done properly, you’ll see the affidavit at the end, signed by two doctors, stating that she was in sufficient health, not in pain, and not suffering under any mental deficiency when she requested these changes.”
“One of them’s Dr. Kelly, her old bridge partner,” Emerson says, looking up from the page. “He’s almost as old as she is.”
“I think you’ll find Dr. Kelly is still a practicing member of the AMA. And the other affidavit is from his younger partner in the practice, Dr. Chin.”
Louis is then met with a barrage of questions; no one waits for him to answer before firing another. What does this mean for taxes? Who’s to take care of the day-to-day? How does this affect the generation-skipping trusts? What do we do next?
All the questions secretly ask the same thing: do you know what you’re doing?
Nell watches as the chummy rapport with Louis fades away, suspicion falling into place quickly. She reaches into her bag for another piece of gum and adds it to the wad in her cheek, feeling the nicotine hit her bloodstream.
“Can I have one of those?” Pansy asks.
“It’s nicotine gum.” Nell mumbles her confession.
“Okay,” Pansy says. “I’d like one.”
“I’m open to all experiences.”
At that, Nell hands it over. She never has been able to say no to Pansy. No one has.
Pansy raises it in toast before popping it in. “Sorry to hear about you and Paul breaking up,” she says as she chews. Meanwhile, Baldwin and Emerson drill Louis on provisions she doesn’t care about.
Nell has to think for a minute about how to respond to a kindness from Pansy. Things have been over with Paul for months, but Nell recognizes the gesture. And there are other factors to consider. There’s Pansy’s smugness, backed by her seemingly successful marriage to Brian, a management consultant who travels constantly. There are their two boys, who are enmeshed in soccer and lacrosse. And then there is her job as a holistic life coach and intuitive guide, which seems to be doing well given the elite pricing Nell had seen when she’d stalked the website yesterday.
This is all in contrast to what Nell suspects is the Quincy view of her life, as ingrained as it is retro: a spinster with no kids, a sucking black hole of a career, and a wastrel father in Italy.
“But I never liked him. No one did.” And this is classic Pansy, thinks Nell, nodding her head at the predictability, but looking like she agrees. Pansy’s digs are not traditionally the type of thing you can call her out on without looking crazy or defending an untenable position. Paranoia hits Nell in the chest at the thought of a Quincy cabal discussing the wretchedness of Paul, of her life, only now letting their opinions be known. It’s one thing to suspect, quite another to confirm.
The shimmering glamour-spell of the Quincys is fading, as it does when she’s around them long enough, reminding her that her mother did know best and a wide berth is required. She cracks her gum in response to Pansy.
“I’ve got a new chanting group for healing you might like,” Pansy continues. “You should try it while you’re here.”
Louis is packing up his much slimmer document case. Paper is strewn around the room as if he’s detonated a bomb. Nell tries to catch his eye as he moves toward the door, but he won’t look at her. She has questions, and she wants to ask them away from Pansy. She gives up any pretense of disinterest and follows him to the front hall, ditching her gum in the wrapper and stashing it in her empty glass.
“You don’t know where this thing is?” she asks his retreating back.
He turns and holds up his hands, as if to say “Search me.”
Nell doesn’t want an enemy, so she won’t challenge his handling of the inventory. “Did she have any other messages for me? As executor, maybe?”
His forehead furrows and lines crease the corners of his intelligent eyes, drawing them down and giving him a competent look, as if he can handle anything thrown his way. She suddenly wonders what he thinks of this whole business, if he finds them all ridiculous. “She was sure of what she was doing, if that’s what you’re asking.” He places both of his bags at his feet and widens his stance, bracing for an inquisition.
“I’m glad she knew what she was doing. I have no clue.”
“She didn’t really confide in me,” he says. “I mean, beyond the professional.” Nell doesn’t doubt that. Loulou confided in few people. “But you being a lawyer certainly had something to do with her choice of executor. She did mention that a few times.”
“Loulou was a Libra,” Pansy says, coming up behind them, and not even pretending she didn’t overhear. “The scales, you know.” She holds her hands up with an imaginary set of weights. “They have an acute sense of fairness.” She addresses Louis as if Nell isn’t there. “As they define it, of course.” With that, she walks out to retrieve something from her car.
“She was kind of an outcast, my mom.” Nell tries to feel normal as the intricate gears of her family are revealed to him. But she shouldn’t feel uncomfortable. In his role as estate attorney, Louis’s already had an eyeful.
“From what I can tell, your mother was very much on Loulou’s mind,” he says generously.
“Are you staying?” Pansy asks, coming back from the car with a saddle leather tote. When Nell doesn’t answer, she says, “Brian’s out of town and I’ve scheduled sleepovers for the boys. You really should, you know.” She breezes past as if she is Lady Bountiful distributing largesse.
After Pansy passes them, Louis trains his blue eyes on Nell, so light they’re almost gray. “Yeah,” he says, not unkindly. “Shouldn’t say it. But even the little exposure I’ve had to your family, I’ve gotta say—I’m glad I’m not you right now.” And with that, he hefts his bags and leaves.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Necklace 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.
Always the black sheep of the tight-knit Quincy clan, Nell is cautious when she’s summoned to the elegantly shabby family manor after her great-aunt Loulou’s death, where she learns that she’s been made the executor of the estate. An outsider in the eyes of the tight-knit Quincy clan, Nell’s cold reception from the family grows chillier when they learn that Loulou has left Nell a fantastically valuable heirloom: a stunningly ornate necklace from India. More than just a piece of jewelry, the necklace links Nell to a long-buried family secret. This engrossing novel interweaves a present-day family drama with an ill-fated Prohibition-era love triangle and delves into the secrets, passions, and tragedies of a uniquely American family.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. When we learn that Nell has inherited a necklace, we can’t help but immediately form an image of it in our minds. Do you recall how you initially pictured the necklace (before Nell discovers it and describes its ornate appearance in full)? How do descriptions of the Moon of Nizam compare with what you originally envisioned?
2. The novel alternates between two timelines: a present-day narrative and a storyline set in the Roaring Twenties. Which setting and/or plot did you enjoy more as a reader, and why?
3. What was your first impression of Nell? How did your feelings toward her change over the course of the novel?
4. Traveling through Europe and Asia on a “grand tour” was something of a tradition among wealthy young men in the early twentieth century. Do you relate to Ambrose’s desire for adventure abroad? How did you react to his decision to leave May behind?
5. Put yourself in May’s shoes. Given what we observe of social propriety in her upper-class world, would you have made the same choice to stay behind? Why or why not?
6. Does Ambrose’s social privilege and wealth affect your impression of his character? If so, in what way? How does he rail against the expectations of his class, and how does he succumb to them?
7. We learn that Ambrose perceives Ethan as his father’s “favorite son,” while he sees himself as the recipient of only his father’s disapproval. May sees things differently, though, saying: “He loves you because you do all the shocking things he won’t” (page 264). Which assessment do you think more accurately represents the Quincy family dynamic, or do you think there’s truth to both interpretations?
8. Revisit the story that Ambrose reports to have told the maharaja’s son in order to obtain the necklace (pages 163-166). Now that we know he in fact paid a substantial sum for the necklace instead, what do you think is the meaning of Ambrose’s story in the context of the novel? Why would May interpret the sad conclusion as a “happy ending”?
9. During a private horseback ride, May tells Ambrose that “Love is an action[....] It’s not something preserved in glass” (page 210). Contemplate this profound statement in the context of the novel’s primary love triangle.
10. What was your reaction to Louis’s first proposal to Nell? Did you trust his motivations at this moment in the narrative? Why or why not?
11. By the novel’s end, the necklace no longer belongs to Nell, nor to any other Quincy, for that matter. In fact, Nell realizes that the necklace represents “a chance to right a wrong” (page 272). How do you feel about the ultimate fate of the necklace?
12. Contemplate the Virginia Woolf quote that opens the novel. In your mind, how does this quote reflect the major themes of the story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Embrace a Roaring Twenties theme for your book club discussion. Immerse yourself in the novel’s Jazz Age atmosphere. Serve Prohibition-inspired cocktails. Look up the recipe for a sidecar, invented at the Ritz in Paris in 1922 and Nell’s choice of drink at the modern-day speakeasy with Louis. Other Jazz Age favorites include a gin rickey and the aptly named old fashioned. Not feeling up for mixology? Serve some bubbly instead.
2. Consider a follow-up book club discussion to compare and contrast F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with Claire McMillan’s depiction of the Jazz Age, or cap off the night by watching a film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Choose either Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 modern version starring Leonardo DiCaprio, or watch Robert Redford in the title role alongside Mia Farrow in the 1974 adaptation.
A Conversation with Claire McMillan
The Moon of Nizam is a fictional creation, but it’s inspired by a real piece of jewelry: the famed Patiala Necklace. How did you develop the specific design and ornate details of your invented necklace?
I became interested in Indian jewelry when I lived in New Delhi, India, for six months in 2001. Female adornment, whether bindis or kohl, whether laq bangles or diamonds, is an everyday part of life there for women of every economic background. I visited the gem collection at the National Museum and subsequently bought books on the history of jewelry and the different styles. The emphasis in India is usually on the artistic craftsmanship of a piece and not on the straight commodity value of the stones in the setting. The back of almost all jewelry is enameled with traditional meenakari that outwardly doesn’t show, but is meant to be a pleasure for the wearer to enjoy.
The maharajas often had significant gems in their collections combined with some of the best examples of jewelry artistry, often in the same piece. Some of the largest and finest stones in the world have come out of Indian mines, specifically the Golkonda diamond mine in Hyderabad. As such, Indian royalty has had their pick of both the best gems and the best craftsmen for literally centuries.
While living in Delhi, I traveled extensively through Rajasthan and toured some of the maharaja’s palaces, as a number of them are open to the public. Some are now hotels, often with an off-limit wing still inhabited by the royal family if the family has managed to hang on to the estate. Frequently on view in these palaces were large formal portraits of previous maharajas wearing their lavish jewels. Some of the jewels were on display, and some of the jewels had been sold, and some were just missing and no one knows where they are, even now. The mysteries of those missing stones started a fascination in me.
What drew you to the historical time period that you explore in this novel?
In 2006 my family moved into my husband’s family’s farm, which was built by his great-grandfather in 1921 as a country house for parties. It serves as inspiration for the Quincy farm, though my house is not as grand, large, or lavish as the one in the book. Because the house had been occupied by two generations of the same family, it had never really been cleaned out fully. When we moved in, we found all sorts of things from every different decade. One of the things we found was my husband’s great-grandmother’s scrapbook that she kept for the first few years she lived in the house. Looking through it felt like a direct glimpse back into the twenties. At their many parties they always played games, everything from sack races and egg-and-spoon races to baseball and horseback riding. The sepia photos of flappers in diaphanous drop-waist dresses, adults playing nursery games while drinking cocktails, and men in black woolen bathing suits intrigued me. The scrapbook initially drew me into the time period and provided inspiration for the book.
Why did you choose to tell the past narrative from Ambrose’s perspective, as opposed to delving into the psyche of our modern-day heroine’s mother, May?
My husband has little patience for stories about his ancestors, but I’ve found generally that in-laws, especially in-laws who are writers, have a higher tolerance for family lore. The journals of Amasa Stone Mather and books on the Mather family came to me courtesy of marrying into a family that is related to the Mathers.
Amasa Mather kept travel journals and wrote letters during a trip around the world in 1907, a grand tour where he shot hundreds of animals in Africa and Asia. He brought home three, which have hung in the front hall of my house ever since. I’m not a fan of taxidermy, but I’ve agreed not to exit them in the name of marital harmony.
Amasa’s journals and letters were privately bound and published by his father after Amasa’s early death in 1920 from influenza. Amasa was a family star and favorite, and they were all bereft when he died so young. After reading the journals, I was a little in love with him myself. I attended a lecture by a Mather family scholar who confessed that she, too, fell a little in love with Amasa as she did her research. He was such a compelling person that I had the idea for my hero, and I never really considered writing the book from May’s perspective.
The Ambrose of the book is an intimate creation in comparison to the real Amasa. In writing Ambrose I could make up his internal life and motivations and create his actions in service to my plot in ways that I could never know or do with the real Amasa.
You practiced law until 2003; how did your own experiences as a lawyer shape and/or inform Nell’s character? Why did you decide to immerse your heroine in this profession?
Nell needed a sturdy leg to stand on when facing the Quincys. She was starting out at a disadvantage by being the black sheep, so I wanted something to balance that. Making her a lawyer bolstered her and helped drive a few of the plot points in the book. I practiced complex corporate litigation for six years and that gave me a hazy enough knowledge of both estate law and provenance law to know how much I didn’t know when writing this book. I researched and tracked down experts about certain legal plot points in the book, including interviewing an internationally recognized provenance lawyer as well as the head curator of a major museum.
You cite or make reference to several literary giants in the early pages of your novel, from Virginia Woolf to Ralph Waldo Emerson. From which literary classics (if any) did you draw influence for this novel?
A Room of One’s Own is a huge solace to me and continually bucks me up and gives me permission to be a woman writing. Of course I have to mention The Great Gatsby, one of my very favorite books and the quintessential Jazz Age novel. I also drew inspiration from Ian McEwan’s modern masterpiece Atonement, which helped me think about the way stories in a family can be distorted by individual perspective and differing agendas. And I greatly admire Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for the way she illuminates how objects become important to an individual and how they gain and change in meaning as they travel along with a life.
Who is your favorite writer?
May I name a few? Daphne Du Maurier, Roxane Gay, Andrea Lee, Zadie Smith, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Meg Wolitzer, (the other) Elizabeth Taylor, E. M. Forster, William Maxwell, and of course Edith Wharton, whose The House of Mirth inspired my first book, Gilded Age. There are many more. My sister once said that going to a bookstore with me is like going to a grocery store with anyone else. I always leave with a haul, and I need books for different moods—for breakfast and for lunch and for dinner. Books provide a different but no less essential kind of sustenance.
Your “works cited” page points to substantial academic research. Describe your research process, and how you came upon so many rich primary sources. How much time do you dedicate to research for your novels?
As you can maybe tell from the above answers, I didn’t set out specifically to research this novel. The book grew out of my organic interests and experiences. I was doing the research in the years leading up to the writing, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
That said, news stories about jewel heists or missing works of art always catch my eye. It’s revelatory to think that in this world of global connectedness, priceless art and antiquities can go totally missing. Additionally, as a former lawyer, whenever I see a story about an object being repatriated I want to understand the exact legal and diplomatic mechanics of how that works. When I started writing the book, I delved more deeply into the legal arguments surrounding repatriation.
From there, I began writing. To move a story along, whether set in the present or the past, character is the driver. “Character is plot and plot is character,” wrote E. M. Forster. It’s a tautology, but true, in that it expresses how closely the two are joined. I was writing trying to bring my characters to life. When I was done with the initial draft, I went back and researched to verify things and to make the context realistic. Actual research in the traditional sense didn’t drag as I was looking for specific answers. The long part was the years leading up to the writing.
Can you give us a sneak preview of your next book?
I’m currently working on another novel, part of which will be set in France during the reign of Louis XVI before the revolution. Again, this topic is the product of long fascination with this time in history both in the US and in France, with Paris in general and Versailles specifically, and with many of the famous women at court such as Marie Antoinette, Madame du Barry, Vigée Le Brun, and Rose Bertin, to name a few.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book should win the Bain de Soleil award of 2017. It has sex, glamour, money, greed, intrigue.
The past and present of the Quincy family is told as Loulou has passed away and her will is read. The necklace she gives to Nell is finally found and a search for its history brings out secrets some would rather keep hidden. I liked how each chapter was either the past or the present. As the ancestors' love triangle story is told the present day family is struggling with greed, trying to fit in, and attempting to keep the past buried. The truth does come out and it shows the family's high opinion of themselves is only that. Each character is flawed as humans are--some more than others. I liked Nell and Emerson. Pansy and Baldwin were the pits. I am still out about May, Ambrose, and Ethan. Communication would have helped a lot there. The story was well written. The author drew me into the worlds of the Quincys. I wanted to know what happened. I also wanted to know about the necklace and Ambrose's travels. I may try to find a copy of the journal the story is based upon if it is still in print.