‘I am Cora Cash. I am very rich. I have a flour fortune, not the flower you can smell but the flour you make bread with. Bread, you know, is the stuff of life. Would you like to kiss me? Most men want to but I am just too rich.’ And then she felt the darkness coming again, and before the young man could answer, she fainted into his arms.
An American Heiress
By: Daisy Goodwin
Publisher: St. Martins
Purchased at: Barnes and Noble
Why I Read It
I love British period pieces: everything by Jane Austen, Dickens, the Brontes. Lately though, I’ve gotten away from these classics in favor of more contemporary fiction. But I still love a good story about British high society, which is why I became a Downton Abbey devotee during the show’s run. A fellow anglophile friend of mine recommended The American Heiress as a salve for my Downtown withdrawal. Sadly, it doesn’t help my missing Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley, but otherwise Goodwin’s debut novel was right up my alley.
Caveat: you have to be interested in this time period. If not, you probably won’t be as riveted as I was by this book.
The American Heiress is about the rich and beautiful Cora Cash, whose parents have more money than God in turn of the century New York City. But Cora’s mother is after the one thing that her money can’t buy—a title—and so they set off for England in search of an eligible bachelor who can supply one. Fortuitously, Cora takes a spill off her horse in the woods belonging to the Duke of Wareham. A whirlwind romance follows, but being a Duchess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. British High Society is as unforgiving as it is secretive, and Cora, the American and outsider, has a lot to learn in order to manage her new life.
It took me a little bit to get into the writing style of this book. It certainly feels like you are reading a novel from a much older time frame than 2011. I’m always weary of this when reading historical fiction. If the language is too contemporary it won’t feel authentic to the time period. But sometimes it can also feel affected, which just makes you away that you’re reading a new book that’s pretending to be old. After the first few chapters of The American Heiress, I stopped paying attention to whether the language felt classic or not, because I just got sucked into the story. In my opinion, this is the mark of good writing. It pulls you along like the current of the river. You forget that you’re someone holding a book, you feel like you’re in the story. And that is definitely how Daisy Goodwin makes you feel.
Cora, our heroine, initially reminded me of Mary Crawley in the early seasons of Downton Abbey. She’s extremely entitled character, but I suppose being rich and beautiful will do that to you. But once we got to Cora’s new life in England, she managed to earn my sympathy. Her mother-in-law was completely overbearing, the servants didn’t respect her, and she couldn’t seem to do anything to make her husband happy. She tried over and over, to be a generous spouse and Duchess, but in such an American way, that her efforts do little more than open her up to ridicule. I felt satisfied by Cora’s evolution throughout the novel.
Ivo, i.e. the Duke and Cora’s husband, was harder to place. He’s drawn as dark and mysterious from the outset, and his behavior throughout the novel certainly fits that build. He initially reminded me of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, but marginally less melodramatic. He remained aloof and mysterious throughout the novel, so much like Cora, I spent most of my time trying to figure out what was going on with him. Mostly this meant I was intrigued, though occasionally I was also annoyed. His character change was more subtle, and not what I was expecting (which I liked).
Goodwin’s supporting characters are well developed and well rounded. I particularly enjoyed Bertha, Cora’s mixed race maid. She gave us a much-needed perspective on everyone else, and was basically the only character who was undoubtedly a good person. I enjoyed getting in her head, because it was also Downton Abbey-esque, like I was back in the servants hall getting all the dirt on the Crawleys.
The plot moves like you would expect a classic to move: that is to say, many of the important moments are understated. Actually, a few were so vague that I missed them the first time around. But Goodwin builds in plenty of character-driven tension and drama that keeps you turning pages. (In my husband’s words, “Wow, you are flying through that book.”) I think I read the 400+ volume in three or four days. I liked the ending, especially because I didn’t see it coming.
When I closed this book, I immediately wanted to read more by Daisy Goodwin. I actually went out and bought The Fortune Hunter and Victoria within 24 hours of finishing it. I would recommend it—but not to everyone. You have to be a fan of period dramas, but if you are, you will devour it. Masterpiece Classic: you’ve found your next mini-series.
Downton fans, what other books have you been reading (or shows have you been watching) to relieve your withdrawal symptoms? Have you read The American Heiress? Share your thoughts!