Monday, March 14, 2016

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin (2016)

I haven't ever read a book or short story by Truman Capote.
I've never read In Cold Blood.  I've never read Breakfast at Tiffany's.  I hadn't read anything mentioned in The Swans of Fifth Avenue.
I have read To Kill A Mockingbird by Truman Capote's good childhood friend, Nell Harper Lee.  Which I loved.
I did see a movie about Truman Capote, the one starring that actor who died of a drug overdose (Philip Seymour Hoffman, thank you internet).  Which I enjoyed.
I did attempt to watch Breakfast at Tiffany's. Which I did not enjoy.
I have seen Murder by Death, multiple times.  Like author Melanie Benjamin, who wrote about this in the afterward, my teenage self thought this movie was the height of hilarity.  I still think it's cute.  Truman Capote, not so much.
I imagine when I was a kid in the seventies, Truman Capote existed, but I don't remember him.
I read Personal History Kay Graham, back in the late 1990s, when I was a little baby librarian and it was on the best seller list. So I came into this book with some pre-knowledge of the Black and White Ball.  I think maybe I've even read another book about the black and white ball, maybe.  Who knows.
I knew who Babe Paley was. I'd heard of C.Z. Guest.  I just heard about Slim Keith from one of my all time favorite podcasts, You Must Remember This, because it was about Lauren Bacall, who essentially was modeled after Slim Keith.
I also had read, several times, in high school and early college, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne, and I probably even watched the miniseries (that's probably why I read the book, that and the sex scenes).  So I knew the story of Ann Woodward, only from that different angle (one thing that this book made me want to do is re-read The Two Mrs. Grenvilles).

This is all to say that the plot points of this book are personally salient.  You'd think I would have loved this book.  Plus, that incredible and awesome cover.





 This book would appear to have everything I would love.  Society dames, mid-century fashion, a garden variety fag (Ann Woodward's words, not mine) done well for himself, scandal (but not too scandalous), famous people (Frank Sinatra! Rose Kennedy!).

But the writing.  Oh gawd, the writing.  It made my teeth hurt.  The many, many monologues.  The modern mixture of points of view; the always poignant and sad windows into Truman's mind or Babe's mind or Slim Keith's mind, or some other poor little rich woman's mind.

Why wasn't this just published as a non-fiction book?  Maybe Melanie Benjamin was trying to emulate In Cold Blood and write write a piece of narrative non-fiction (again, I haven't read In Cold Blood, and I'm really not interested in reading it either, so perhaps I'll never know).

Somewhere in the middle of the book - because I actually finished it, because, teeth grittingly annoying as the writing could be sometimes, I was still interested in the story.  I wanted to know what was going to happen, and I actually though Benjamin's written pictures of these women, this man, and the world in which they lived and drank and gossiped and partied and ultimately stabbed each other in the back was really, really well painted.  You were definitely there with them, sipping cocktails, buying a mask for the Black and White Ball, having your hair done next to Rose Kennedy.  Even dying with Babe Paley, as her husband grieves, and her last words are about Truman Capote.

Somewhere in the middle of this book, I wondered what Truman Capote would have thought about this book. He was such an awful, self absorbed person, I can imagine he would have been delighted to know a best selling fictional biographical account was at the top of the lists all about him and his swans.  But I also think there would be some cruel, snideness about the writing itself.  It comes across as occasionally pretentious.  Read it aloud, using a certain kind of voice, and you will soon see what I mean.  The kind of pretentiousness from college creative writing class.  I know, when I fancied myself a writer, I wrote a story about Anne Boleyn in the same way.  I guess the difference here is that Melanie Benjamin got her book published.  I'm writing stream of consciousness bool reviews on a blog about 16 people read.  So perhaps I should shut my fat mouth... or stop typing...

To read or not to read?  I would say yes. It's really deliciously bad, like Valley of the Dolls, only Benjamin doesn't change any of the names (plus, aren't all of these people dead now?  Harper Lee may have been the last person alive mentioned directly in the book, and she passed away last year.  Gloria Vanderbilt is still alive.  But everyone else is dead, I think).  


The Swans of Fifth AvenueThe Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin


How do you "star" a book that you find both repellent and also delightfully fun; to steal a line from Charles Dickens, this is the best of books, this is the worst of books. Delightful, delicious sugary fun: Benjamin's written pictures of these women, this man, and the world in which they lived and drank and gossiped and partied and ultimately stabbed each other in the back was really, really well painted. You were definitely there with them, sipping cocktails, buying a mask for the Black and White Ball, having your hair done next to Rose Kennedy. Even dying with Babe Paley, as her husband grieves, and her last words are about Truman Capote. It occasionally reminded me of Valley of the Dolls, except Benjamin didn't bother changing the names. The writing is more disguised, but at its heart is as blunt as Valley of the Dolls too. Blunt, and teeth grittingly annoying. The internal monologues, the fraughtness, the poor little rich girls and guys, the switching points of view, the windows in the minds and souls of various wealthy socialites and the first pocket gay in history. Truman Capote was scandalous; I'm not sure this book was scandalous. I'm also not sure what he would have thought about the book, if he were alive to read it. He was completely narcissistic and self -absorbed, so the fact that people still want to read about him, even a half-assed fictionalized account (this would have made much, much better non-fiction), he would have been giddy as a schoolgirl. But I also think he would have been cruel as well; and aghast that anyone would even attempt to tell his story, as he would always be able to tell it best. To read it or not to read it - I say go pick it up. It's worth a few hours to be lost in this midcentury wonderland of yachts and fancy dress balls and bitchiness. But please don't try to find some sort of literary merit here, other than pure pleasure.


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