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by Amber Brock

Pub Date: May 3rd, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-101-90511-1
Publisher: Crown

A young socialite in Jazz Age New York City must decide between a comfortable but stifling life with her distant husband and the prospect of romance with a mysterious painter.

Brock’s debut novel examines the social and familial pressures faced by Vera Bellington, trapped in the gilded cage of a loveless marriage and bound by rules of decorum enforced by her imposing mother. Despite an impeccable education in art history from Vassar College, where she let down her hair with scandalous Southern gal pal Bea Stillman, Vera’s treated like a set piece by a husband who’s more interested in conducting “business” than paying attention to his wife. When Vera’s mother asks her to dust off her art history background and examine a painting for purchase, Vera unwittingly stumbles on a forgery ring that dredges up her repressed past and opens the door to a new acquaintance, the romantic muralist Emil Hallan. What follows is a world of trouble for both Vera and Hallan, as neither has the cunning required to stage a private affair. Predictably, their time together dissolves into misplaced suspicion and existential angst. As the novel alternates between Vera’s past at Vassar and her present unraveling, the story hints at scandals both small and large but never quite delivers on either front. This larger structural problem is exacerbated by weak secondary character development; the smoke and mirrors surrounding Hallan might just hide the fact that he’s more of a cardboard cutout fantasy than a flesh-and-blood artist, while poor Bea is left to languish in the past, along with all her vim and vigor. Since Vera’s privilege shields her from dealing with the consequences of betrayal—both of her true nature and of her friendship with Bea—even would-be antagonists offer pat advice that steers the flailing socialite toward an inevitable break with her family. If only we all had the ability to hire an avuncular private detective who swoops in at the ninth hour to confirm the meaningful struggles of our lives are always fraught, always internal.

Brock sketches a hazy outline of 1920s high society as seen through the eyes of a woman who would be free from its hollow promises. Somehow her main character wallows in indecision, even as circumstances allow for the possibility of personal growth and reinvention.