Wednesday, March 19, 2014

WWRW: The American Heiress (I Liked It!)

Last week I wrote a WWRW post about a best-selling novel by Daisy Goodwin titled The American Heiress.  I had started it on my flight out to CO to visit with my oldest son and his family.  I got around 100 pages in (while falling asleep off and on throughout the flight, and having to keep looking back in order to keep the characters and details straight), but I never got around to finishing it while I was out there--because babysitting for 2-and-a-half-year-old twin girls is a full-time job.  And when you spend your days keeping such delightful creatures fed, clothed, diapered, safe from harm, and appropriately amused, the idea of sleeping at night is so much more attractive than the idea of staying up too late reading, no matter how good the book is.
And I wasn't even convinced that this one was going to be that great, because on page 56 Cora is told this about the titled man she is falling for: "He's a Catholic, of Lord knows what twisted Papist fancies are at work."  I thought to myself, "Oh, here we go!"--because I was sure this book was going to put down the Catholic Faith at every turn, like most popular modern novels these days seem to do, and perhaps that's why I didn't get hooked by the book right away.  (It's infuriating--and boring!  If an author wants to be thought of as cutting edge and brave, he should fill his books with likable characters who are faithful Catholics!  Now that would be brave!)

I was surprised, however, to see that Goodwin was not going to use the duke's Catholicism against him.  In fact, as I read on I found out that there is a chapel located on the grounds of Lulworth Castle (this book's version of Downton Abbey), and it is mentioned that the duke's family "stayed Catholic when the rest of the country went Protestant, so they spent a lot of time here, praying."  Small details that point out the young royal's devotion are mentioned in passing, without teasing or put-downs.  Cora is an Episcopalian who associates Catholicism with the Irish maids back in America, and she is not particularly religious; but she doesn't recoil when the duke jokes with her, "Really, Cora, we'll make a Catholic of you yet."  I was disappointed, however, that instead of getting married during a Catholic Mass at the chapel on the castle grounds, the vows between the heiress and the duke are exchanged at Trinity Church in NYC, an Episcopal church where all the big society weddings are held.

Okay, getting back on track here.  Well,  I picked the book up again on the return flight, and once I got home, I literally couldn't put it down until I'd reached the absolutely unpredictable conclusion.  Seriously, until the last chapter, you don't know how it's going to end: will the main character, a beautiful, spirited, and super-wealthy American heiress named Cora Cash who has married a handsome, brooding English duke with the probably-historically-accurate-but-to-me-rather-unfortunate name Ivo (who appears to have married her for her money alone and is carrying a torch for--and having an affair with--his old flame), stick with her husband; or will she run off with her childhood American best friend (a sweet, down-to-earth guy who has always loved her and appears to be head and shoulders above the duke in terms of character and morals)?  I was on the edge of my seat, I really was.  It could have gone both ways, and you could see the validity of either choice (especially for a non-Catholic heroine, who isn't concerned with the Church's teachings on marriage and divorce).   Even the author, in the interview in the back of the book, says that she was of two minds about how the story should end, and she didn't decide until she was writing the last chapter.

Critics of Catholicism will look at Ivo's checkered and sin-filled past and use it to bash the Faith, saying that it goes to show that Catholics are all holier-than-thou on the outside, sitting there acting all pious in church on Sunday, while they're no better--and probably worse--than anyone else.  That attitude really bugs me; because yes, we're all sinners--and Catholics understand this perhaps better than anyone.  Catholics set the bar high, trying to emulate the saints and failing repeatedly.  But we believe in atonement, in forgiveness and redemption; we believe that if we are truly sorry for our sins and try to amend our lives, our loving Father will forgive us.  In spite of his failings, Ivo is a true believer.  Whether he changes his ways and becomes a man who deserves Cora's love is for you to find out--I don't want to spoil the book for you if you plan to read it.

This book will resonate with Downton fans, as promised in a blurb on the cover; if they are "suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal syptoms, [they] will find an instant tonic in Daisy Goodwin's deliciously evocative novel."  It's all there: the distinctions between the classes--even within the upper class, where titled Brits and wealthy Americans are two different species altogether; the distinctions amongst the members of the serving class as well, where a butler and a valet are worlds apart in rank and importance; the unique relationships between the ruling classes and their longtime, loyal servants; the opulent fashions and jewels, which are described in rich detail; and most of all, the will-they-or-won't-they love story of Cora and Ivo (think Mary and Matthew...sort of).

There are scenes of passion between unmarried persons, but they are no more detail-filled than Mary's scandalous tryst with Pamook in Season One.  I wasn't sure I would be able to recommend this book when I started it, but I'm happy to say I can.  It's not my favorite book ever, but I liked it.  It's well-written--and after a slow start, it kept me interested and turning the pages, that's for sure.  And I think the author chose the right ending for it.

(I'm like a broken record here, but just a reminder: I'm giving away 7 copies of my novel Finding Grace (it's a "Finding Grace in Lent" giveaway!).  If you'd like to enter to win a copy, just leave me a comment on any String of Pearls blog post up until March 24 at midnight.)

Now head on over to Jessica's for more book talk.


  1. I like books that have an unpredictable ending so I may have to add that one to my wish list. I have two daughters who are 12 & 14, so they are the perfect age for your book. I'd like to be entered in the giveaway. Thank you!

    Mrs. C

    1. Hi Mrs. C,

      The 14-year-old is probably ready; the 12-year-old might be a tad young. I would suggest reading it yourself first to make sure. (Although the issues are handled as sensitively and chastely as possible, the book does include some tough subjects, like teenage pregnancy, abortion, and the Holocaust.)

      You are entered in the giveaway--good luck! :)

  2. All right, you sold me! I'm going to get this one from the library -- on audio, so I have company while I do chores and my workouts...

    1. I think it's perfect for those purposes. It's one of those guilty pleasure kind of novels--it won't be in my top 10 books ever, but I enjoyed it and wanted to see what would happen next. I forgot to mention in this review that Cora is a much more interesting character than I thought she was going to be at the outset, when she seemed like a stereotypical vain, spoiled, shallow rich girl. I liked her and was pulling for her.

  3. Thank you for the review, Laura. It's hard to find good books these days that don't have extremely detailed passion scenes that leave nothing to the imagination and serve only to titillate. I've been disappointed many a time in the past reading an interesting book I can't put down only to come across stuff that makes me feel like a voyeur. Ruins the book for me!

    1. I hear ya, Aileen. Sometimes when I come across those shocking scenes in novels that are otherwise pretty good reads, I am amazed--and I wonder how those authors can face their spouses, children, or grandchildren after writing about all of that stuff in such a voyeuristic manner. That NEVER adds to the story, in my book. There's no need for it.

      This book gets the point across when that stuff is happening, but without all the gory details.