Re-imagined as Ellie Hart in modern day Cleveland, Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart (from The House of Mirth) comes alive in Claire McMillan’s Gilded Age.
Inspired in part by Irina Reyn’s (whom Claire McMillan thanks in the afterword) What Happened to Anna K, which transported Anna Karenina to modern day Brooklyn, Gilded Age transports Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart from The House of Mirth to modern-day Cleveland. Why Cleveland? McMillan is a resident of the city (as am I!) and with descendants of iron and steel magnates walking the streets, it makes for the perfect setting.
McMillan’s tragic heroine, Ellie Hart (a play on Lily Bart), returns to Cleveland from New York City after her much-publicized marriage turns sour. Her filthy rich ex-husband dabbled in illegal substances and Ellie dabbled in other — often married — men, and a bitter divorce ensued. Ellie sees Cleveland as her second chance at love, respect and power, preferably with a wealthy husband by her side.
Ellie shifts her attention from one man to another, quickly finding another alternative if the first one does not pan out. She briefly flirts with P.G. Gryce, a boring naturalist with money oozing out of his pockets, before moving on to Randall Leforte, a flashy ambulance-chasing attorney. Leforte seems intent on matrimony, but Ellie loses interest and fancies herself in love with William Selden, whom she’s known since childhood.
Selden, as everyone calls him, is a college professor and an intellectual, and his own amorous pursuits parallel Ellie’s behavior. However, as a man, his antics are acceptable, while Ellie’s are gossiped about and deemed scandalous. Selden suffers no repercussions, while Ellie falls more and more on the social ladder, and more and more into alcohol, drugs and inappropriate relationships.
Narrated alternatively by Ellie and another female character, who is never named, Gilded Age follows Ellie’s misguided attempts to remake herself in her childhood home. The other character is Ellie’s oldest — and sometimes only — friend who has a happy marriage and a child on the way. As the book progresses, this woman moves from defending Ellie and her actions to others, to wondering how her friend could stoop so low. Ellie, on the other hand, publicly declares that quiet domesticity is not for her, yet seems to be secretly yearning for it.
In modern terms, Ellie is quite the train wreck, and reading about her misguided journey is equally sad and entertaining. Yes, I’m from Cleveland and am therefore a bit biased when it comes to this title. But Gilded Age is the perfect mix of romantic dalliances, affairs and high society shenanigans, and will keep you turning page after page, yearning for just one more chapter.