Folksy storyteller Jakes (Charleston, 2002, etc.) directs a relatively economical drama of scandal and bad manners amid newly rich robber barons climbing the summer social ladder in Newport, RI.
Having cut his teeth working for Erie Railroad moguls Jay Gould and Jim Fisk after the Civil War, Samuel Driver has gotten to be a millionaire railroad baron in his own right—the break-your-knees way. Having married the good-looking hotel dancer Grace Penny, and with a grown auburn-haired daughter named Jenny, Sam the swell is blocked from cracking polite society by the nobs at Newport, however, mainly on account of bad blood between him and William K Brady III, undercut by Driver in a Wall Street bond scheme decades before. Now, in 1893, an intruder in Driver's home leaves Grace dead from a gunshot, and Sam and 18-year-old Jenny decide to build that house in Newport after all, because Grace wanted it. Mrs. Astor, Mrs. Fish and Mrs. Vanderbilt, however, must be vanquished, and especially Mrs. William Brady, Emmeline, aka the Tigress, sherry-sodden and off her rocker, who concocts the plot to ruin Jenny Driver by urging her daughter, Honoria, to befriend the girl all the while talking ill behind her back. And Honoria has her cap set on suave young architect Dickie Glossop, but once Dickie spots Jenny, he agrees to design the new Driver cottage, despite his better social instincts. Jenny has a will of her own, though, and is terribly attracted to a handsome Irish sportsman, Prince Molloy, who wins Jenny's love but pays dearly for it when roughed up by her father's thugs. Driver, naturally, aims to have his daughter married to a titled gentleman, such as the charming, brutal Count Orlov, of bogus Russian-French title, but good enough for Driver's purposes. Historical personages blend nicely with the fictional in Jakes's neatly organized saga, and the folly and ambitions of a father and rapacious businessman are exposed and forgiven.
Another well-hewn American history lesson for Jakes's devoted fans.