Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Review: She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell


*Winner of the 2010 INSPY Award for Historical Fiction*

She Walks in Beauty
By: Siri Mitchell
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-0433-3

About the book:

During New York City’s Gilded Age…
The game is played amid banquets and balls.
The prize is a lifetime of wealth and privilege.
The rules will test friendships and the desires of a young woman’s heart.
Clara Carter is the social season’s brightest star…
but at what cost?

For a young society woman seeking a favorable marriage, so much depends on her social season debut. Clara Carter has been given one goal: secure the affections of the city's most eligible bachelor. Debuting means plenty of work--there are corsets to be fitted, dances to master, manners to perfect. Her training soon pays off, however, as celebrity's spotlight turns Clara into a society-page darling.

Yet Clara soon wonders if this is the life she really wants. Especially when she learns her best friend has also set her sights on Franklin De Vries. When a man appears who seems to love her simply for who she is and gossip backlash turns ugly, Clara realizes it's not just her marriage at stake--the future of her family depends on how she plays the game.

Review:

Clara Carter is a quiet, bookish young woman, who, unlike her peers, prefers studies to dreams of a successful social debut. When her reserved doctor father and society-obsessed aunt decide she must debut a year early, Clara is thrust into preparations for a life she’s been ill-prepared for and isn’t sure she wants – a life where appearance is everything, and reputations rise or fall on the interpretation of a look or the flick of a fan. Charged with saving the family honor by marrying the De Vries heir, Franklin, Clara submits to a strict regimen of social training, diet, and corset-wearing, all with the goal of remaking herself into the type of woman the De Vries scion will find irresistible. But the closer Clara comes to obtaining her family’s goal, the more she questions the cost of a life and debut based on superficiality and social artifice. As Clara’s eyes are opened to the cost of celebrity and social success, she faces a difficult choice – conform to society’s expectations and sacrifice her true self and any hope of happiness, or risk her social and economic well-being for a chance to spread her wings and fly.

She Walks in Beauty is an absolute jewel of a novel, from its stunning cover to the rich historical detail found within its pages. Siri Mitchell brings the fabled Gilded Age of New York City to vivid life, from the glittering ballrooms and opera halls to the filthy slums just blocks away that funded much of the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by many members of society’s upper echelon. With a sure hand Mitchell strips away the veneer of opulence that masks the wealth of the time period and reveals the heart-rending cost exacted from young debutantes seeking social prominence. Securing one’s future meant remaking oneself into the image of society’s ideal model of perfection, and Mitchell’s story drives home a stark reminder that not much has changed since women like Clara graced New York City’s streets. Taught how to walk, talk, eat, and dress, Clara and her peers were given an ideal to aspire to and pressured to conform, no matter what the physical or spiritual costs, in order to win the prize of an eligible match.

Clara is one of the most memorable heroines I’ve encountered in my reading this year. She begins her journey with sparks of independence, quickly overshadowed by her desire and willingness to serve her family’s interests. But the more she learns, the more she chafes at society’s glittering artificiality and wants to matter and be loved for herself – and begins to wonder why she can’t be accepted as she is, instead of being re-molded into an ideal that not only threatens her future happiness but her physical well-being. Clara’s personal and social awakening is at times heart-rending, handled with a deft grace that feels absolutely authentic to the time period while communicating timeless spiritual truths in a subtle, powerful fashion. And the romance will take your breath away – Clara’s true love is a hero in every sense of the word, and their blossoming relationship is a joy to watch unfold.

Mitchell has a gift for bringing history to vibrant life within the pages of her novels, and she fearlessly proves her willingness to explore both the beauty and the horror of history with She Walks in Beauty. The Gilded Age isn’t romanticized – Mitchell presents a fully rounded portrait of Clara’s world, and the resulting story is raw and real and wonderful, at times uncomfortable, always emotional, and unquestioningly thought-provoking. For all the darkness in Clara’s world, Mitchell saturates the story with hope, and the light shines all the brighter for the stark contrast. Thought-provoking, challenging, and rich with period detail and a heart-warming romance, She Walks in Beauty is a story that will shake you to the core and leave you pondering Clara’s journey and its present-day implications long after you finish the final pages. I cannot wait for Mitchell’s next book!

8 comments:

Amber S. said...

Beautiful review, Ruth! :D I LOVED this book, and I think you word your thoughts about it so well. Thank you for sharing!

~Amber

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

A jewel? Sounds fantastic :)

Ruth said...

@Amber S. - Aww, thank you so much for the kind words!! I simply adored this book - it was a fantastic read and thought provoking and oh - I need to stop. :)

@Juju - It is WONDERFUL. Hope you get the chance to read it!

Jess said...

Siri Mitchell has quickly become one of my favorite authors, what with this spectacular novel and 'Love's Pursuit', which came out a couple of years ago or so. I can't wait for her next one, due out in March!
Great review, too!

Kristin said...

I loved this book! I recently went a little crazy when our bargain store got in a huge shipment of Christian chick lit and historical fiction...I ended up with two of Siri Mitchell's books- this one and "A Constant Heart." I read "A Constant Heart" first, and it was a little odd for me, so I wasn't sure what to expect with this one. But like I said, it was great. :)

By the way, I checked "Never a Dull Moment" out at the library and watched it yesterday...it was hilarious! Thanks for the recommendation. I love Dick Van Dyke- his facial expressions and physical comedy are priceless (I love his "drunk" act). I'm trying to get my parents to watch it before I return it, because I think they would really enjoy it, too. :)

~Kristin

Ruth said...

@Jess - Thank you! And me either, A Heart Most Worthy promises to be another winner!

@Kristin - I whole-heartedly agree. And can I just say I love those kinds of shopping trips? Bargains rock! :)

So happy you enjoyed Never a Dull Moment! Dick Van Dyke is just priceless in that movie. Hope your parents get the chance to watch it!

Jenny B. Jones said...

One of my favorite covers for the year. Can't wait to read it.

Ruth said...

@Jenny - Thanks so much for checking out my review! Hope you get to read She Walks soon. I agree, it's one of the best covers of the year (and one of the best books IMO too, LOL!!).