Aug 27 2008
Dear Ms. Godberson,
I admit I passed on the first book in this series, The Luxe, when it came out earlier this year. The tagline of Gossip Girl does the Gilded Age turned me off. Young adult novels featuring catty, backstabbing characters do nothing for me. And while the Gossip Girl TV series is watchable, I find the novels they’re based on unreadable. But then I read a few reviews that piqued my interest so when I got the chance to review Rumors, the second book in the series, I jumped on it. I’m glad I did.
Although I haven’t read The Luxe, I didn’t find that a problem. I think you do an excellent job including enough details to clue in new readers without resorting to mindnumbing infodumps. At the same time, I think you left out enough details that I feel I can go back and read The Luxe without finding it boring or repetitive because I already have an idea of what happens.
Set in Manhatten at the end of the 19th century, The Luxe series follows multiple younger members of the upper society elite. When Rumors opens, it’s mid-December 1899 and society is still reeling from the untimely death of its brightest ingenue, Elizabeth Holland. It doesn’t help that the gossip rags continue speculating that Elizabeth is still alive. And as expected given that she is a young, beautiful woman, the rumors range from kidnapping by a gang of thieves to being sold into slavery.
I think it’s funny that the gossip mill chose to focus on such outlandish possibilities. It makes for a better story, but the truth is even more scandalous. Elizabeth faked her own death so she could run off to California with the family coachman, with whom she’d had a secret, illicit relationship for years. Only two people know the truth: Elizabeth’s younger sister, Diana, and Elizabeth’s best friend, Penelope Hayes.
Considered by society to be impetuous, wild, and nothing like her perfect older sister, Diana has a problem. She’s fallen in love with rich heir and notorious playboy, Henry Schoonmaker, who was also previously engaged to Elizabeth. It was that engagement which drove Elizabeth to faking her own death in the first place. The Holland family, formerly the cream of Manhatten’s crop, has fallen onto hard times lately and it was Elizabeth’s marriage to Henry that would have saved them from disaster.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of Elizabeth’s decision, Diana finds herself stuck. Both Diana and Henry must observe the proper mourning period for Elizabeth’s death. But when that period ends, then what? While Henry may love Diana, she’s the younger sister of his dead fiancee. It doesn’t take much effort to predict what society’s reaction will be.
On the other hand, there is backstabbing Penelope. With Elizabeth gone, she intends to assume the position of society’s brightest ingenue and she’s already well on her way there. What’s more, she wants Henry for herself. One of Henry’s previous dalliances, she will do everything in her power to get him back and keep him for good.
The parallels to Gossip Girl are obvious. Elizabeth is The Luxe‘s equivalent to Serena, and Penelope is Blair. But while I find the omniscient narrator of Gossip Girl to be obnoxious and off-putting, Rumors‘s narrative voice is almost charming. I wish I could say why exactly I prefer the latter over the former. Maybe it’s the historical setting over the modern one. The book is told in a manner reminiscent of old-style, high society gossip columns aiming for urbane sophistication even while gleefully ruining its members’ reputations. Each chapter is even prefaced by an excerpt from various gossip columns, newpaper clippings, and even high society handbooks, all of which contribute to the Gilded Age flavor.
It also helps that for all their money and social status, the characters are easy to identify with. Elizabeth gave up everything for the love of her life. She’s out of her element in California but she has no regrets. Diana is suffocated by society’s expectations and trapped by her family’s current situation. Penelope is tired of being second-best and much like Gossip Girl‘s Blair, I think her scheming provides the most interesting storyline in the book. Henry’s past affairs and less-than-sterling reputation influence his perspective on his relationship with Diana. I personally think he’s a bit of a fool but I guess when you’re goodlooking and have lots of money, you don’t need much sense. Lina, Elizabeth’s former maid, seeks to improve her lot in society, even if it means lying about her identity and pretending to be something she’s not.
While I thought the end of the book — specifically the closing action — was a bit rushed, this was a good, light read for me. Not exactly original, given the success of Gossip Girl, but I think the historical setting adds a nice flavor. B