The Social Graces
By Renée Rosen
Penguin Random House
Chicago author Renée Rosen turns east in The Social Graces, a romp through Gilded Age New York’s High Society. From outspending each other to clawing one’s way up the exclusive social ladder, and from expensive balls to women’s suffrage, Rosen catalogs an era.
The Social Graces is built entirely around the social seasons of Gilded Age New York, with even its structure set in societal lines: “The Seasons 1876–1878,” “The Society Pages 1880–1884,” “The Four Hundred 1890–1894,” and, finally, “Society as We’ve Known It 1894–1908.” Each section is built around its header, focusing in turn on the social season, the society papers (and what happens therein), the Four Hundred (and its ensuing disasters), and the ways in which society as it was known is changing.
Our three major players are introduced almost immediately. Society, which functions as an entertaining, gossipy Greek chorus, gets the prologue. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, New York society’s reigning grande dame for much of the course of The Social Graces, commands chapter one. And Alva Vanderbilt, the new woman in town, gets chapter two. Society, Caroline Astor, and Alva Vanderbilt continue to trade chapters throughout the novel, giving readers a fast-paced tour of the world they inhabit—and the strictures within which they live. All of them are very aware of the stratification of their money-based society, something made clear in the very first chapter: “We are the nouveau riche,” Society says. “The new money. Enemy of New York’s old money, those insufferable yet enviable snobs called Knickerbockers.”
The Social Graces moves very fast. Rosen covers more than 30 years in 65 chapters, rarely going into too much depth on any one thing. Despite the energetic forward propulsion, however, characters—including Caroline Astor, struggling against the tide of change, to Alva Vanderbilt, trying to be that change—are given depth and emotion. One might have some trouble understanding a particular ball or multiple-course dinner is of such great import, but one never doubts that, to our heroines, it is indeed of the greatest importance possible. Throughout, the Greek chorus of Society lets us know what’s at stake, as when they tell us, in the first chapter, that society is of the utmost importance: “Social currency. It’s our form of gold. Our means of trading—for better invitations, more status and greater influence.”
Rosen makes clear that the social season was one of the few places in which women could exert any kind of control, and she turns the spotlight fully on them. Nearly all the women featured in The Social Graces are linked to wealthy men: they are the wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, and mistresses of the rich, and, in some cases, exist now only as footnotes on their husbands’ lives. Here, for a brief span, they exist as women, sparkling in the spotlight while their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, and lovers are relegated to the sidelines. Early in the second chapter, Alva muses on the ways in which society offers women “their own little world, governed by their own rulers,” goes on to realize that it is also the only arena in which she can claim power: “If she wanted respect, if she wanted power, she had to make her way in society.” The Social Graces, throughout its brisk pages, gives the women on whom it focuses a chance to do exactly that.
A book that moves so fast, and speaks in such a conversational tone, must perforce not spend too much time on any one facet. This is likely why we hear that Alva is increasingly dedicated to women’s suffrage, yet see little of her activism on the page. Similarly, the radiant dialogue, which moves as quickly and as brightly as the novel itself, does not always quite suit the era. The word “okay,” used throughout The Social Graces, was at the time the less-common variant of OK. The phrase “birthday girl,” which entirely fits the scene in which it is used, would almost certainly not have been used at the time at which it is spoken.
The Social Graces moves quickly, covering vast amounts of territory as it races towards a new world its characters have alternately struggled against and fought to create. It sometimes skims the surface rather than diving deep, and every word choice is not necessarily appropriate for the Gilded Age. It’s also a sparkling piece of summer historical fiction. For those of us who are sticklers—well, we can always grab our history books and refresh our memories of the era after we finish.