Friday, January 15, 2016

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Published January 2016 by Delacourt Press
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher by way of Netgalley

Publisher's Summary:
Of all the glamorous stars of New York high society, none blazes brighter than Babe Paley. Her flawless face regularly graces the pages of Vogue, and she is celebrated and adored for her ineffable style and exquisite taste, especially among her friends—the alluring socialite Swans Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill. By all appearances, Babe has it all: money, beauty, glamour, jewels, influential friends, a prestigious husband, and gorgeous homes. But beneath this elegantly composed exterior dwells a passionate woman—a woman desperately longing for true love and connection.

Enter Truman Capote. This diminutive golden-haired genius with a larger-than-life personality explodes onto the scene, setting Babe and her circle of Swans aflutter. Through Babe, Truman gains an unlikely entrĂ©e into the enviable lives of Manhattan’s elite, along with unparalleled access to the scandal and gossip of Babe’s powerful circle. Sure of the loyalty of the man she calls “True Heart,” Babe never imagines the destruction Truman will leave in his wake. But once a storyteller, always a storyteller—even when the stories aren’t his to tell.

Truman’s fame is at its peak when such notable celebrities as Frank and Mia Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, and Rose Kennedy converge on his glittering Black and White Ball. But all too soon, he’ll ignite a literary scandal whose repercussions echo through the years.

My Thoughts:

  • The perfect juxtaposition to my first book of the year (Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman), in The Swans of Fifth Avenue Melanie Benjamin tells the tale of a group of 1950's socialites enjoying the world just before feminism really took off. Even with all of the money, the jewels, the fashion, the staff, these women were entirely reliant on rich men and their worth seemed to be completely based on their look. For a brief period, Babe worked as a fashion editor at Vogue. It helped her refine her style but was also the last time she was any thing other than William Paley's wife, style icon, queen of the swans. Some of the other swans also had brief careers but, ultimately, they all spent the rest of their lives working at marrying well.

  • I've learned through listening to Melanie Benjamin talk about her writing, reading her books, and doing some follow up research, Benjamin does a bang up job of researching her books. This book is no exception. As it's about a more current subject than her others, it's easier to do a little digging and check the facts. There may be some places where Benjamin has played with the facts but certainly nothing major as far as I can see. Which, for me, makes the fiction piece all the more impressive when it's been worked entirely into the known.
  • Benjamin may have painted Babe Paley as a more sympathetic character than I've seen her portrayed elsewhere, but she also doesn't shy away from showing Paley's real warts. She was, for example, a terrible mother and Benjamin's Babe doesn't seem to feel much guilt about it.
  • Conversely, Benjamin manages to make Capote not an altogether unlikable character (at least early on) by letting readers see into his childhood and the difficulties he faced as a gay man in the 1950's.               
  • The book may be about all of Capote's swans but it is, at it's heart, the story of the love that Babe and Truman shared, both of them desperately seeking someone who would love them for who they really are. Babe let Truman see the woman, literally, behind the mask, something even her husband was not allowed to see. 
  • In the end, Truman Capote became a caricature of his flamboyant younger self, someone who flaws seemed to have become ever more exaggerated. Benjamin paints a picture of a man so desperate for success and fame that he betrays the confidence of those he claimed to love but so lost that he doesn't truly understand why.
  • Babe, on the other hand, faced death as exactly the woman she spent her life creating. Dying of cancer, she planned her entire funeral, right down to the catered food, the wine, and the flowers.                                                              In Benjamin's hands, Babe Paley, a woman who had it all, became someone I pitied as she laid dying, surrounded by children who there out of obligation and estranged from the only man she'd truly loved.
  • Bottom line: I thoroughly enjoyed this The Swans of Fifth Avenue!

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