Fame, fortune, fashion and family secrets. Gangsters, garters, gin and jazz. Speakeasies and sequins; fashion and fringe; bootlegging, romance and murder—welcome to the 1920s.
Fans of the Rich Mean Girls genre, rejoice! Anna Godbersen, author of the The Luxe* quartet, has started a new series. Bright Young Things (HarperCollins, 2010) kicks off a story set at the very end of the 1920s. Like The Luxe, it’s a frothy page-turner about three girls of different social standing, each unsure as to how far to trust the others. Also like The Luxe, it’s full of period flavor—detailed descriptions of gorgeous clothing and settings—while being a fast-paced, page-turner of a book due to the plotting.
The format of the story arc even follows the same formula as The Luxe, with a prologue that hints at disaster:
I can’t remember very many now—although there are three, from that last incandescent summer, whom I resist forgetting. They were all marching toward their own secret fates, and long before the next decade rolled around, each would escape in her own way—one would be famous, one would be married, and one would be dead.
Are there literary pyrotechnics? No. Is it formulaic? Yes. But I have no complaints, because Godbersen’s writing is competent, and her formula is enormously entertaining. I’m already looking forward to the next installment.
On the other hand, Jillian Larkin’s Vixen (Random House, 2010) features some literary pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, it’s of the not-so-positive nature.
Like Bright Young Things, Vixen follows three girls of different social standing as they navigate life and love and friendship, as well as trying to reconcile What They Want with What Their Families Expect.
So far, so good, right? Right. Well, here’s where the book gets less pleasant. Almost every single time a character in this book opens his or her mouth, I cringed. The dialogue is so stilted and so unrealistic that, when read aloud, it sounds like a hideous caricature of a soap opera. (With, of course, the occasional bit of slang bunged in to remind the reader that the book is set in the ‘20s.) Think I’m exaggerating? Try reading this passage out loud:
“Have you completely lost your mind? First you embarrass me with this hair of yours, and now you want to go to a foul juice joint like that? Do you even know who owns those kinds of places? People connected to the Mob. They use these speakeasies as their offices of corruption. Are you telling me, Gloria,” he said, raising his voice, “that you want to join the ranks of those scoundrels and whores?”
Credit where credit is due though—this book attempts to explore the extreme difficulties of an interracial romance in 1923, and (VAGUE SPOILER!) the author doesn’t take the easy way out. At its core, Vixen is also about young people entering a new world—a world that the older generation isn’t ready for—which is a storyline that’s relevant in any era. The plotting and the interactions between the characters keep the pages turning, and despite my huge issues with the writing, I’m embarrassingly curious about what will happen in the upcoming sequel.
*Basically, it’s Gossip Girl (even down to the physical descriptions of the characters and the relationships between them) in the Gilded Age. The titles, in order: The Luxe (HarperCollins, 2007), Rumors (2008), Envy (2009) and Splendor (2009).
When she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably curled up by the woodstove, reading.