A Whartonesque novel of manners about a group of pretty, self-absorbed, rich young people in New York City in the merry mid-1920s.
Prohibition doesn’t cramp this set’s style as they cruise around downtown to speakeasies in their parents’ fancy cars and to parties at the Waldorf. A faux pas can change everything in a moment, though, as it does for Lizzie Carswell, who is seen stepping out of the Gramercy Park Hotel one Sunday morning with Billy Holmes after his roaring party the night before. Billy is supposed to be engaged to Clara Hart, the wedding just weeks off, though Billy is a wild drinker and tends to disappear for long stretches, as he does after this party. The mystery of the night is compounded by Lizzie’s flight to Europe, where her mother has presumably already abandoned the family. Meanwhile, mutual friends Mary Nell, the sensible, single protagonist, and awkward romantic Iris Ogleby (both saw Lizzie that morning and probably leaked the news, though they swore they wouldn’t) have gotten permission to sail to Europe with Betsy Owen, an older woman “who wrote novels about New York with jaggedly exacting prose and minute, if sometimes recognizable detail.” Also joining them is Betsy’s handsome nephew Geoffrey Rice, a soldier wounded in the war in France, who plays court to Mary publicly, though he has other ideas about love once they’re in Paris. In fact, the tension throughout this exquisitely calibrated story is between the public and the private—what’s known and what’s kept secret—and Mary and Iris have much to learn about judging appearances, especially regarding the attentions of the opposite sex. The palette is deliberately flat, the prose seemingly transparent and superficial. There is, supposedly, a whole messy world roiling beneath, but Ephron (White Rose, 1999, etc.) allows only a delicate, tasteful glimpse.
Bewitching in its tidy spareness and splendidly light touch.