I had this book on my to be read list for a year,( it was published in 2016) don’t quite know why I hadn’t read it nor why I decided to read it now, never mind, I did read it and here are my thoughts….
First, let me tell you about the plot… our protagonist, Maeve Fanning, a first generation Irish immigrant, is born and raised in Boston, in a poor Italian neighborhood by a single mother. She takes secretarial courses and moves to New York City to “better” herself. It is in 1931 and she becomes enamored with the wrong men and bootleg gin and ends up in a psychiatric hospital (you need to read the novel to find out why she is there) where she meets and befriends a strange young woman. When she gets out she returns to Boston to start over. She bluffs her way into a position at an upscale Antiques Shop by changing her name to May and dying her naturally red hair platinum blond (she is told by her former secretarial school teacher, who also runs a placement agency, that she won’t get a job not only because it is the Depression but also because she is Irish!) The owner of the shop has her deliver an extremely important purchase made by a nouveau riche family to their home, upon her arrival she discovers the daughter, Diana Van der Laar, is the young woman she met at the hospital and the story goes from there, throwing “May” into a world of extreme money and the excess it can buy and the lifestyle she thinks she can live. There are many twists and turns as we take the journey with her.
What is my take away from the novel…actually many things. Obviously, no matter how much money one has it doesn’t give peace of mind, happiness, nor freedom. But to May these are the out of reach goals she seeks and feels she will find by being “accepted” into Diana’s circle. May’s mother works in the alterations department at R. H. Stearns in Boston (it became a Federated Store and one that, like Marshall Field’s, lost its name and became Macy’s) and longs to become a salesclerk, that is a position she never gets. Her work is exemplary (probably why she isn’t moved into a selling position) and she remakes many items for May to present herself properly at work and socially. It is extremely important to her mother that she always be “correct” in looks and manners. The book takes us to the world of antiques and how the owners of the shop educate May, (who, by the way, is not only smart but a very quick study and eager to learn about the items she works with as well as the culture the world has to offer) it takes us into the world of buying art and antiques as a way of making a name for oneself in society (the purchase that May delivers to the Van der Laar family is donated to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and put in pride of place in the hall of antiquities!) certainly nothing new there, but interesting to have it outlined in such a detailed and informative manner. She learns that she doesn’t quite fit into the life she left behind when she left Boston for New York and in the end, most certainly not with the damaged Diana and her “friends” and family!
It is told in the first person narrative, which I think worked well and, to my mind’s eye, it is a coming of age story (although she is in her mid-twenties) filled with an almost Dickens flavor, poor girl strives to better herself, fails, meets wealth hopes to succeed, fails, finds love, fails, seeks friendship, is betrayed, and in the end is transformed into a more understanding, and most certainly, a more informed participant in the way of the world…in other words an independent woman. I did enjoy the book and would suggest you read it for yourself. I would love to hear your thoughts after you read it. I enjoyed Kathleen Tessaro’s thoughtful and insightful look at a time quite different from today (or is it!!!) I must, however, admit I preferred Ms. Tessaro’s The Perfume Collector. I have not read any of her other books but definitely will put them on my TBR pile, The Debutante looks particularly interesting.