This novel, set in the 1930s in upstate New York, tells the story of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Laura Kelly, a young woman whose youthful indiscretion has left her unmarried with a small daughter, a difficult position in her small town, where she is largely spurned. Millay, although a celebrated poet by this time, is also considered a fallen woman by the townspeople, who hear tales of wild parties at Steepletop, Millay’s estate. Laura chafes at the townspeople’s treatment of her and her daughter and yearns for a freer life. Millay needs new costumes for her upcoming poetry tour and wants Laura, a talented seamstress who dreams of designing for the theater, to make them for her. Laura is fascinated by the poet and her bohemian lifestyle, but also repulsed and conflicted about taking work from her, sensing that the poet is attracted to her. Laura wonders, “Was there a way to live freely without being wild, to live a balanced and satisfied life?”
Laura is an admirable character, but this is a warts-and-all portrayal of Millay, who is shown as emotionally fragile after the death of her mother and the poet Elinor Wylie, and her affair with the poet George Dillon. We see her creative genius and her social conscience, as well as her lasciviousness, her arrogance and her cruelty. Although this is not a novel about historical events but rather people’s emotional and creative lives, the period is still wonderfully evoked through descriptions of the economy and politics, and the homes, clothes and attitudes of the townspeople. Having recently visited Steepletop, I found the depiction of Millay’s life there particularly interesting. Erika Robuck has written two other historical novels featuring American authors, Hemingway’s Girl and Call Me Zelda, which are now on my reading list.