Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The American Heiress, by Daisy Goodwin

Just before the beginning of the 20th century- The Gilded Age-when machines were installed into cotton mills, and the railroads made a trip take a quarter of the time it would have in a horse-drawn carriage, American heiresses were sought after by the English aristocracy to shore up their long suffering estates.  The American Heiress is the story of Cora Cash, daughter of a multi-millionaire, whose mother has but one goal in mind- a title for her daughter.  Cora was raised surrounded by the finer things in life, and with the knowledge that her mother would stop at nothing to gain the social standing she craved.  After a fiery spectacle at Cora's coming out ball in New York, she and her mother make the trip across the Atlantic on their own steamer to find Cora a husband.  Mrs. Cash, relentless in her pursuit, but knowing no one in England, pays for the services of a well to do woman to introduce them into ton society.

Cora is not the typical heiress; for while being raised in luxury, the one thing she wants the most is to be out from under her mother's rule.  An accomplished horsewoman, Cora is riding the hunt with her host and becomes lost in the woods.  After a run in with a branch, where she is knocked unconscious, our heroine is rescued by Ivo, the Duke of Wareham.  For her mother, a more perfect suitor could not be found, and within two days of her stay at Lulworth, Cora is engaged to Ivo.  It's no secret the Wareham dukedom is in need of funds, as the run down state of Lulworth suggests.  Old English aristocracy and new American money collide as Ivo and his mother (a double duchess to boot) make the trip to New York for the wedding.  Ivo is repulsed by everything in American society: the vulgarity, the money, the excesses that define American society during the latter 1800's.  Upon Cora and Ivo's return to England, Cora, the novice of ton society, is basically left to the wolves to fend for herself.  Ivo, while loving, is preoccupied with taking his seat in the Lords, and fighting off a lover from his past.  Cora's missteps are celebrated by her mother-in-law, and instead of helping, Ivo and his mother make matters worse for Cora.  Banished to Lulworth due to her pregnancy, Cora spends months and months alone at an estate she does not truly have control over, while Ivo is off accompanying Prince Eddy in India, and shaking off his embarrassment caused by his wife.

Ivo is not a hero that is easy to like, and indeed, I hated him at many points in the book.  On the surface, Cora seems to be a spoiled heiress, but you quickly realize there is more to her than money.  She married Ivo for love, and despite his faults, in the end, he becomes likable.  The entire book is a wonderful example of the Gilded Age, where excess was the way of society in America.  Goodwin does an excellent job at getting each and every detail of this excess perfect, and you get a true feel for what it must have been like during this time in American history.  A wonderful read about a time long past.