Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin (2010)

It is strange to me that Downton Abbey and The American Heiress basically share the same birthday.  The American Heiress seems to be such a prime example of a Downton knock-off, yet when you look at the publication date of the book and the premier of the soap opera, the timing is too close.  There isn't really anyway one can be based on the other; they were both gestating in the authors' creative wombs at the approximately the same time.  I guess the fact that Daisy Goodwin has an American heiress named Cora who marries a duke and saves his land and that Julian Fellowes has an American heiress named Cora who marries a duke and saves his land is just coincidence.  Perhaps there is some six degrees of creative separation at work here. Goodwin is British and married into the television business (albeit American), so perhaps at a swanky industry party somewhere, some creative osmosis occurred. However it happened,   The American Heiress  could be a whole season of Downton Abbey.  There is even alternate plots between upstairs and downstairs that occasionally cross.

 The book is certainly not Henry James or  Edith Wharton (and most certainly does not have an Edith Wharton ending);  a distant relation of sorts (a hillbilly cousin?), as Goodwin is exploring some of the same territory as the two famous novelists, except in a far more simplistic way.  Let's say Henry James decided to write a screenplay (for Downton Abbey, perhaps and you may end up with The American Heiress. (I did like how Goodwin almost borrowed the Knickerbocker Teddy Van Der Leyden's name right out of The Age of Innocence; I wonder why she just didn't call him Van der Luyden and just be done with it; I would have appreciated it even more that way).    The characters, if not exactly card board cut outs, occasionally seem a bit flat, especially towards the altogether too quick end.  But all that said, the book reminded me of some the best sorts of beach fiction, Judith Krantz or John Jakes without the sex, a touch of Gone with the Wind.  The book is instantly forgettable - nothing sticks here.  But immensely enjoyable.

I had at least one dog eared page of historical fussiness:  Winaretta Singer, the sewing machine heiress, was mentioned in passing as having "gone straight to Paris for her debut and had married Prince de Polignac."  Simply Wikipedia-ing Winaretta Singer would have shown that her life was far from simply going to Paris for her debut.  The Prince was her second husband (she divorced the first, another prince) and they had a "lavender marriage" meaning that both were gay.  That sort of laziness, in both research and writing, I think is one of the main defects of the book (there are a couple other of these in the book).

The American HeiressThe American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If Edith Wharton were alive and well today, and was asked to write an episode of Downton Abbey, this may be what she would end up with.  The American Heiress is Edith Wharton-lite, boiled down to 45 minutes of television. Which, quite frankly, is perfect reading for the beach, by the pool, on an airplane, waiting in line a the bank.  Maybe you won't savor the language, but you will enjoy the story (if you like this kind of story).  It's hard to believe that there wasn't some sort of E.S.P. or creative osmosis going on between the Downton folk and Goodwin (who is in the television biz herself); perhaps in some sort of six degrees of separation they all attended the same industry party and gossiped a bit much about their current projects in 2009 (the coincidence of having a Cora who is an American heiress and who marries a duke to save his property in both is quite amazing).  Historical quibbly-ness aside (look up Winaretta Singer on Wikipedia), this is still an immensely enjoyable book.

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