The charmed lives of Gilded Age teens
Scandalous affairs, decadent parties, steamy rendezvous and scheming friends: In her new novel for young adults, The Luxe, Anna Godbersen captures the essence of Gilded Age New York high society at its most lavish and luxurious.
Told in a series of vignettes from the perspectives of several interwoven characters each with his or her own agenda The Luxe follows a young debutante, Elizabeth Holland, as she navigates the world of late 19th-century New York aristocracy, a world filled with backstabbing friends, salacious affairs, strict societal rules and lots of gossip.
In all, the characters seem remarkably similar to teenagers today or at least the ones we see on Gossip Girls or The Hills. And with a first printing of 200,000 for this first entry in a scheduled three-part series, HarperCollins is expecting this clique of characters and their charmed lifestyle to be just as popular. The author of this teen sensation got her start in writing as the assistant to the literary editor at Esquire magazine. I wrote a review almost every week, Godbersen recalls, and it was a real learning experience. Though she reviewed mostly male-oriented books for Esquire, her personal reading on the side included plenty of more girly books. From there she went on to ghostwrite a series of books for teen readers under a pseudonym. It was a fun thing to do, Godbersen says, and I made a small amount of money. Ultimately, she got a lucrative book deal of her own, and this one, The Luxe, became her labor of love, she says.
Once Godbersen got the green light for the book idea, she started researching the Gilded Age in New York. "I had a fondness for the Edith Wharton-type of novel," says Godbersen, a Berkeley, California, native and Barnard graduate. She also expected the glamour and excesses of the time to appeal to her teenage readers. Because she lives in New York City herself, it was easy to choose Manhattan as the setting for the book.
"New York was where that type of society was strongest during that period, she says, and I thought readers would be able to identify and recognize the places here." As for the characters, Godbersen tried to create believable and empathetic personas, each with his or her own issues. " Elizabeth is the heart of the book and I wanted her to embody certain aspects of the period," she says. "As the eldest daughter of a wealthy widow, Elizabeth must maintain a certain type of decorum in order to marry well. I started thinking about the ways that she would have had to conform to the period and that she would want to appear to be a very pristine, elegant and obedient girl of the time," Godbersen recalls.
But Elizabeth has secrets that even her closest friends and family do not know, including a clandestine love affair, a dark secret about her deceased father and a passionate yearning to escape the life she has been born into. "I ended up thinking about all of the hyper-accomplished women in high school these days who have high test scores, play sports and have lots of extra-curricular activities and the frightening pressure that all of that encompasses," the author says. "They are so taxed by having to appear perfect all the time."
But not all of the characters in The Luxe are do-gooders and overachievers. Elizabeth's supposed best friend, Penelope Hayes, is just the opposite. " I really wanted her to be evil," Godbersen says. And through backstabbing, man-stealing, blackmail and quite possibly murder, the author gets the job done. As for the men in the book, the author has tried to create a certain fantasy about men through her male characters. "I think they embody a type of courtliness that is true to the times," she says. " Not because they were more romantic, but because there were so many more layers of ritual and subterfuge associated with their courting." But she doesn't portray the men as infallible either: Henry Schoonmaker, Elizabeth's betrothed, is a known womanizer and drunkard; Teddy Cutting is lovelorn romantic who himself has proposed to the eldest Holland girl on several occasion; and Isaac Philip Buck is a scheming hanger-on who helps to plot Elizabeth's demise.
With the publication of her book this month, Godbersen will learn whether her pampered 19th-century party girls (and boys) and her vision of long-ago decadence will catch the imaginations of today's teen readers.
Heidi Henneman writes from the decadent city of New York.