The Gods of Newport

Written by John Jakes
Review by Bethany Latham

In Gilded Age Newport, wealth and social status are all; wars are fought on tennis courts and in ballrooms; and the arbiters of these cutthroat conflicts bear names like Astor, Vanderbilt, and Fish. Nouveau riche railroad tycoon Sam Driver is willing to do almost anything to break into Newport’s patrician circles and provide entrée for his beautiful daughter, Jenny. Jenny, who approves the idea but still manages to fall in love with a lower-class Irishman, and Driver’s implacable enemy, William Brady, provide just two of the obstacles Sam must face to achieve his goal of joining the cream of fin-de-siècle society.

This novel by the prolific Jakes is a strange combination of set piece and strikingly unmoving melodrama. The reader is treated to two over-emotionalized murders in the first pages of the book (one is the real murder of Jim Fisk told in flashback), and the latter pages are filled with over-the-top “action” scenes, such as a tennis match whose winner gets the girl, a four-in-hand coach race, and scattered brawling. The book often reads like a screenplay, and there are abundant descriptions of clothes, food, and the social rules. This makes for a glitteringly attractive tableau, but there is no depth to it, and the plot is remarkably predictable. Real historical personages, such as Mamie Fish, make engaging characterizations, and are really the only thing that keeps this novel from devolving into a morass of predictability and formula. Taken as a whole, Jakes’s latest offering is a shallow, easy read which captures the zeitgeist of the Gilded Age, even if it doesn’t tell a multifaceted or particularly absorbing story.