One of Auchincloss’s great themes—the decline of the ruling–class WASP—here expands to include the female strivers of the pre-feminist age.
Think of all this century’s grande dames, those smart and connected women from Pamela Harriman to Brooke Astor who refused to assume a matronly role for their well-off hubbies, and you have the real-life counterparts to Auchincloss’s heroine. This is not his first book to examine the ethics of well-bred women on the make (see The Lady of Situations, 1990). What’s new here is a surprising sexual frankness, conveying a familiar reminder that among the upper classes even adultery has its rules of behavior. Violet Longcope, the frustrated wife of a Yale professor, hopes for greater things for her daughter, Clara, a blond and beautiful Vassar grad. Pushed by her mother, herself deluded by visions of “the great world” beyond New Haven, Clara marries into the fabulously wealthy Hoyt family, ruled by her mother-in-law, who cautiously approves Clara’s desire to have a career of her own. A success at a major style magazine, Clara pauses briefly in her ascent to bear a child. While her husband fights in WWII, she gets involved stateside with a Kennedyesque politician. After her lover dies at Normandy and her husband learns of the affair, Clara gets a divorce and devotes herself full-time to her career. She plots her editorial takeover of the magazine, eventually marries the elderly tycoon who owns it, and after his death runs his foundation with the same savvy she’s displayed throughout. Auchincloss works in his familiarity with trusts and estates once again when Clara’s greedy stepson challenges her inheritance. Always the smooth operator, liberal-minded Clara survives an ill-fated affair with an oily art-dealer and eventually triumphs with an ambassadorship from JFK himself.
Another fine chapter in Auchincloss’s ongoing fictional chronicle of the American century.