About the Book:
In Gilded Age New York, money buys everything. What is your price?
Sometimes the ties that bind are the most dangerous of all…
Paris, 1899. Emma Lacasse has been estranged from her older sister for nearly twenty years, since Caroline married a wealthy American and left France. So when Emma receives a request from Caroline to meet her, she is intrigued. Caroline invites Emma to visit her in New York, on one condition: Emma must tutor her shy, young niece, Isadora, and help her prepare for her society debut.
Caroline lives a life of unimaginable excess and opulence as one of New York’s Gilded Age millionaires and Emma is soon immersed in a world of luxury beyond her wildest dreams – a far cry from her bohemian lifestyle as a harpist and writer with her lover, Claude, in Montmartre.
Emma hopes for an emotional reunion with her only family, but instead she finds herself in the vice-like grip of her charismatic and manipulative sister, who revels in the machinations of the ultra rich. As Emma begins to question her sister’s true motives, a disaster strikes, and New York society is stripped bare – beneath the glittering exterior lies a seething nest of deceit, betrayal, moral corruption … and perhaps even murder.
From the bestselling author of Tuscan Rose comes a mesmerising tale of two sisters and the dangers and seductions of excess.
‘‘The Gilded Age’ refers to a period in the history of the United States that coincides approximately with the Victorian era in Britain and the Belle Époque in France. It was a time of rapid economic growth, when great fortunes were made and millions of immigrants flooded into the country. It was also a period of extreme wealth for some and destitution and abject poverty for others. The term was first coined by Mark Twain in his novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. ‘Gilded’ is not the same as ‘golden’. It implies a thin, shiny patina that covers something less attractive underneath.’ – Author note.
I don’t often start my reviews with a quote but this one really hones in on the themes explored within this novel. The type of extravagance detailed in this story is far from anything that I can credibly envisage. It’s obscene, and Belinda Alexandra contrasts this with the other side of New York with stunning clarity.
‘My fingers hovered over the pieces — they seemed too precious to touch. The tiara had seven spikes, the largest in the middle, each composed of an oval-shaped ruby surrounded by rose-cut diamonds. The lower semicircular band was a single row of diamonds over a layer of spherical pearls. The other pieces were equally magnificent. I couldn’t even guess how much Caroline had paid for the collection, but in terms of their historical value they were priceless.’
‘I shook my head, ashamed of what I and the rest of my family would look like to a woman in Mrs Dempsy’s situation, or to Mr Sauer, or the new mother whose baby would probably die. One of those hundred dollar bills Oliver had handed out at the ball for the men to roll into cigarettes would have kept these families housed for a year. What Caroline had spent on my costume and jewellery would have provided amply for a lifetime. If Lucy had handed out the party favours to the people in these slums, it could have changed the course of a whole neighbourhood’s history.’
The protagonist of this story is Emma Lacasse, a French writer and musician who travels to New York to reside with her estranged sister in a deal that borders on blackmail: Caroline will clear Emma’s debts if Emma grooms Caroline’s shy daughter into a catch for the debutante season. That Emma’s debts were actually incurred through paying for medical treatments and funeral expenses for their mutual grandmother has no effect at all on Caroline, who, quite frankly, is a sociopath. This becomes more and more apparent as the novel progresses. Hats off to Belinda Alexandra for creating a truly abdominal villain in Caroline. Few in literature would match her.
‘I would have been flattered by anyone else’s recognition of my positive attributes. But when Caroline cited them it sent a chill through me. Isadora had said that her mother took careful note of the tiniest details about people. I was sure that far from admiring me, Caroline was figuring out how to use those positive traits to her advantage.’
Given that this novel is set at the turn of the 20th century, there are themes of women’s suffrage explored, particularly within the context of women’s rights within a marriage. Emma herself was not married, and at the beginning of the novel it was all she hoped and dreamed for. I liked how this was turned on its head by the end of the novel, with Emma considering that her freedom was to be more sought after than the bonds of marriage and family. There were many examples within this story that cast marriage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in a less than favourable light. Slightly off topic, but still related to the themes of women’s suffrage, I really loved this scene where Emma and her New York friends prepare to go out to dinner for one of their ‘bachelorette’ get togethers.
‘Why did everyone take off their corsets?’ I asked Florence when we reached the street. ‘Because we’re going to indulge in a feast and we don’t want indigestion and constipation tomorrow. Besides, if you always wear a corset your back and abdominal muscles never develop strength of their own, and your internal organs get compressed and possibly become misshapen. Those garments badly affect women’s health, but if we don’t wear them when we go to work we’re hounded by men and women alike. It’s difficult enough to move in a man’s world without being accused of being a woman of loose morals.’
The constraint of a corset is very much a mirror to the constraint placed upon women in general. Just as a corset was designed to keep everything in its rightful place, so too were all of the laws of restriction related to women’s lives. Whether residing in a gilded cage or a hovel in the slums, the entrapment for some of the women in this story was not dissimilar. Hand in hand with these themes was the profiteering from the hardship of others, abuse of power and the lack of a welfare state. Heavy themes, but all were woven into the story with a finesse that is very much Belinda Alexandra’s trademark.
The Invitation is a story filled with glamour and deceit. There is plenty of drama and suspenseful moments, but I feel there was an anti-climatic feel when it came to consequences for the atrocities committed by Caroline. This woman operated in a world of her own and I was far from satisfied with how she ended up. We see enough despicable people in real life getting away with all manner of atrocities. In the world of commercial fiction, I prefer it when the villain doesn’t get to live happily ever after.
‘My voice cracked at the full realisation that Caroline had purposely destroyed the most precious thing in my life. But why did that surprise me? My sister knew no boundaries.’
Thanks is extended to HarperCollins Publishers Australia via NetGalley for providing me with a copy of The Invitation for review.
About the Author:
Belinda Alexandra has been published to wide acclaim in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Holland, Poland, Norway and Russia. She is the daughter of a Russian mother and an Australian father and has been an intrepid traveller since her youth. Her love of other cultures is matched by her passion for her home country, Australia, where she is a volunteer rescuer and carer for the NSW Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service (WIRES).
Published by Harper Collins – AU
Released on 22nd October 2018