Tuesday, November 3, 2015

3.5 Stars - The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

Publisher: Random House
Historical Fiction
Buy: AMZ

About the Book

Centered on two dynamic, complicated, and compelling protagonists—Truman Capote and Babe Paley—this book is steeped in the glamour and perfumed and smoky atmosphere of New York’s high society. Babe Paley—known for her high-profile marriage to CBS founder William Paley and her ranking in the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame—was one of the reigning monarchs of New York’s high society in the 1950s. Replete with gossip, scandal, betrayal, and a vibrant cast of real-life supporting characters, readers will be seduced by this startling new look at the infamous society swans.


I became aware of Truman Capote early on - I wrote my first term paper on Breakfast at Tiffany's, and off and on over the years I've been fascinated by the man and the mid 20th century era of the New York socialite. Had Babe Paley, Slim Keith, and Pam Churchill existed in this time as they did in the 50s they'd all have reality shows, with Capote flitting around each one for his closeup. Capote, arguably, is the first "celebrity writer" in that he milked his successes for all they were worth and did his damnedest to parlay his talents into ongoing fame. If you know his story, you'll know how well that turned out. :/

Swans offers a dramatic account of Capote's friendships (if it can be called as such) with the doyennes of NYC chic, in particular Paley. Benjamin's retelling of events is done almost lovingly, but not entirely sympathetic of all the players. One might look down upon these women, wives of rich men, and ask why they deserve any respect - I can hear in my head the jokes Joan Rivers made about Jackie Onassis using sex as something else to do besides shop at Bergdorf's all day, you could apply it here. 

Anyway, I found through the story that while I couldn't identify with any of the swans I felt the most for Babe Paley, who seemed to have her lot in life forced upon her. Her mother pushed her toward a high station, her husband wanted a classy woman on his arm to make him look good, Capote wanted an (gullible?) ear to bend and somebody to fawn over him. We find at the end a broken soul and the oft-told lesson of how money can give you many things, except the one thing you really need.

I liked this book. Readers might be irritated with the portrayals of Capote and Lady Keith, etc., but when you consider how irritating they probably were in real life, then perhaps Benjamin captured them well. There are moments of Capote cattiness, more so than you'll find in the PSH movie. 

Having read this, I'm off to read Capote's Answered Prayers. You may want to read that first before you get into this.

ARC received from publisher via NetGalley

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