REVIEW: A Bright Young Thing by Brianne Moore
In early 1930s England, a young firebrand finds herself on a fraught and dangerous road to independence.
In 1931 England, Astra Davies defies all the conventions. Clever, witty, and determined, Astra smokes, drinks, plays a mean piano, and gallivants around London with her beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. But Astra finds herself in a tight spot when her parents die suddenly, leaving her with a raft of debts. With few marketable skills and a closet full of family secrets, Astra has two choices: find a rich husband or make her own way.
A fiercely driven woman like Astra is not about to cast her lot in with a man, especially out of desperation. And since the only man she fancies–Jeremy Harris, the Earl of Dunreaven–is as hard up as she is, her way forward is clear. But the path to independence is a bumpy one fraught with hazards and heartbreaking choices. A blackmailing socialite threatens to derail Astra’s reputation. A brainless business partner just might drive her even further into debt. And a series of bruising scandals dogs her every step of the way.
From the bustle of London to the country estates of the aristocracy, Astra embarks on a journey that tests her brains, wit, and mettle as never before. But one way or another, Astra Davies is dead set on proving she’s no ordinary Bright Young Thing.
CW: A Blackface costume is worn by one drunken prat at a party
Dear Ms. Moore,
This blurb enticed me into discovering just what Astra Davies was going to do. Rather than do the obvious and seek a marriage of convenience to a rich man, Astra sounded like she had guts, determination, and brains. The novel does focus more on her and her journey of self discovery but there is a slow burn, low key, yet also delicious romance tucked among the house parties, Society wedding, Parisian shopping jaunts, and exploration of the secrets in the family closet. I had a wonderful time reading it and didn’t you get some cover love with that image of Astra’s gorgeous Schiaparelli gown.
The date at the start of the book, January 1930, is important. But the news that hits Astra that afternoon is far more important to her than the distant collapse of world financial markets. Her beloved parents don’t return from a trip to try out their new car. Left an orphan, Astra sinks into an abyss of grief until her new reality is delivered by her father’s pompous lawyer. There is no money and her father’s financial investments have mostly tanked. Cast on the mercy of her stern aunt, she arrives in London and mulls over her future with her supportive cousin Toby.
Looking at her mother’s account books to try and learn budgeting, she realizes how much her parents sheltered her. Reading her father’s journal, she glimpses some secrets she’s determined to uncover. Astra knows her Society world well and is certain that if word of her penury leaks, she’ll be cut and politely discarded. That would end any chance she has of solving her money woes and saving the family pile where she grew up and all her memories are. That’s not the only worry she faces as her first step back into the social whirl brings her face to face with an old nemesis as well as some dear childhood friends.
It seems that Lady Millicent has her eyes on an Earl who can’t keep from watching Astra though Astra does nothing to encourage him given that his title might be old but like most old families, he’s cash poor. It will be up to Astra to save her own skin, defeat her enemy, and learn who she is and what she’s really capable of doing.
This is Astra’s journey. I enjoyed her relationship with her friends, delighted in watching a country house party and big wedding, swooned at the handsome Earl who just won’t fade into the background but seeing Astra sit up, wise up, and take the reins of her life in her own hands is the meat of the story. After all – it’s the early 30s and most men don’t expect a woman to understand business nor do they take kindly to one who tries. Astra’s got to be tough yet also feminine, smart but not too openly so, wily without seeming crass plus once Society has been poisoned against her, she’s got to face down the rumors, snickers, and direct cuts that go with that.
After her parents’ deaths Astra acknowledges that she was flighty and more concerned with new dresses, dances, and house parties. What she discovers she doesn’t know sparks the beginning of a guilty self assessment. Did her parents keep her in the dark because they didn’t want her to know things or because they saw her as self absorbed and didn’t think she could handle them? Should her mother have taught Astra household management when Astra had shown no signs yet of being interested in marriage? Could they have risked exposing the family secret that could have torpedoed Astra’s hopes of marriage at all?
Urged on by her cousin, Astra starts to probe, investigate, and stand up for herself. Someone might think to stonewall her and keep her in her place but I cheered when Astra verbally battled back and put him in his place using her wits and intelligence. She also stands up to a bully who tries to humiliate her and earns the respect of someone who despises this sort of behavior.
Astra is well aware of how the people of her world think and act and she works to counter the big and little things that might tip them off to her financial position. It’s all show and maintaining one’s position. One must act properly, have the money for vails for servants, not beg off of expensive trips to Paris, and a young woman must absolutely have her own ladies maid. But oh, the problems that servants can cause as their behavior reflects upon one’s self. Yet her maid Reilly proves a boon at times to Astra while also opening her employer’s eyes to the problems faced by the working classes facing unemployment for daring to strike for better conditions.
Reading the section set during a shooting party made me think of “Gosford Park.” Single ladies can’t breakfast in bed, the men head out in old tweeds for the first drive before everyone gathers for the lavish “picnic” lunch, the dinner gong signals when to change, and servants move silently to see to the needs of the guests. Later the gifts given to the heir of a Dukedom and his bride are enough to boggle the mind and outdo those in the musical version of “High Society.”. But no one is impressed with a nouveau riche American upstart no matter how much money he might have.
When Lady Millicent’s venom has done its work, Astra learns who her friends are – and aren’t. One blunt talking friend tells her straight the only two ways that Astra might be socially re-accepted then shows her colors by cleverly helping achieve one of them. Meanwhile Astra has learned her way around business ledgers and come up with another role that Society will just have to be willing to see her in.
Jeremy’s statements to Astra hint at a man who knows his worth on the Marriage Mart is due to his title and estate but one who also wants to be understood and have a woman interested in him for who he is. He can also pull out the title and use his Naval training in how to cow upstarts when the need to protect and help Astra arises. She might initially gently but firmly put him off but Jeremy proves steadfast and willing to help. By giving Astra a Naval bucking up speech to get out there and do her own saving if that’s what she wants to do (and it is), he gets her thinking big and bold. Later she returns the favor, after seeing his lovely estate and listening to his pride in it (which reminds her of her own father’s love of historical buildings). Their extended time together reveals their true selves and allows them to be sure of their feelings. Call me old fashioned but there are books in which I don’t want to see extended sex scenes and the courtly courtship here was all I needed.
I was impressed that Astra devises her own plan for how to save herself – and others who depend on her and the business. There’s no Big Moment when she pulls a financial rabbit out of a hat and then all worries are over. Post war Britain had changed forever and the world wide depression only added to the upheaval. Astra has to be smart and daring and finally willing to face her past and accept that she must let some things go in order to have a chance to secure her future. I delighted in one character who gives Astra a boost in confidence although sad as she related her own thwarted academic hopes of days gone by.
Several period events and situations are cleverly worked into the narrative with a light hand reminding me that the Great Depression wasn’t the only thing happening in the 30s. Astra grows as a person and, thinking about this, she decides that in spite of all the emotional blows she suffers and struggles she has to overcome, she’s glad of this and of the person she’s become. She likes being competent and respected. She can also deliver a verbal comeuppance that makes her enemy’s eyes water. When she and her Earl are sure there’s such a lovely proposal scene that I won’t spoil for those who decide to read the book. It’s truly scrumptious. A-