Writer and harpist Emma Ducasse was raised by her grandmother in Paris. Her elder sister Caroline is married to American tycoon Oliver Hopper. While Caroline revels in a life of luxury, Emma struggles to make ends meet and is deeply worried about how she will repay her many debts. Caroline has never shown any affection towards her, but when she eventually discovers Emma’s plight she offers her an invitation to travel to New York. In exchange for payment of her debts, Emma must work to improve the prospects of a suitable marriage for Caroline’s daughter, Isadora, after her debut. Although reluctant to leave her lover Claude, Emma feels she has no choice but to accept the offer.
On the ship, Emma makes friends with an artist, Florence, who later introduces her to others helping poorer families at the mercy of the rich landlords like Hopper. Emma is conflicted. A friend warns her: “The more you associate with the fashionable crowd, the more alienated from your soul you will become…” and she also discovers that “here in New York society whether you liked or disliked a person had no meaning. Associations and social events were about power; gaining it or protecting it.”
Caroline’s vile schemes and manipulation are well-handled, and Emma is a likeable character, as is Isadora. The historical background research is thorough, but the excessive detail slows the pace and even risks smothering the true heart of this story. The closing chapters are more energetic as they move towards a rather predictable conclusion.
Readers who can never get enough description of clothes, interiors, balls, and the superficial doings of the idle rich in America’s Gilded Age are going to adore this book; others may wish its empathy hadn’t been swamped by quite so much bling.