What Caroline Knew

Written by Caryn James
Review by Lessa J. Scherrer


Caryn James’s second novel is a Jazz Age story of the art world that echoes the themes of love, loss and betrayal in the quintessential 1920s novel, The Great Gatsby. Would-be flapper Caroline Stephens chooses the safety of life as a young New York society matron, then uses her boring husband’s money to become a patron of the arts – the patron of one artist in particular, Nick Leone. On the night of his opening, Nick has hung a huge curtain-draped painting in the gallery, one Caroline has never seen before. Once most of New York society has gathered at the show, Nick reveals the painting: Caroline, nude and apparently engaged in some unseemly and definitely unladylike behavior. Caroline insists she never posed for such a portrait, then faints.

In the following days, Nick is arrested for public obscenity, the painting disappears, and eventually Caroline has her day in court to defend her honor. But that is not the end of the story.

What Caroline Knew is a gem of a book for anyone who admires a strong, confident heroine. To call Caroline Stephens a three-dimensional character is to do her a disservice. She is equally substantial across the dimension of time. Despite multiple narrators and an almost languid pace, she stands at the heart of this story, gracefully dropping her veils, transforming languid into intimate and making the many voices cohesive. James’s multi-layered story is able to show Caroline’s contradictions and complexity in a way that a more straightforward plotline could not do. Gatsby fans, art lovers and jazz babies should all put What Caroline Knew on their must-read list.