cover image Gilded Age

Gilded Age

Claire McMillan. Simon & Schuster, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4516-4047-2

McMillan’s debut novel, inspired by Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, is a hard-edged look at the vacuous, insipid elite of modern-day Cleveland, Ohio. Ellie Hart, back home after rehab and divorce, quickly falls into her old ways, charming men in her search for a wealthy husband, and alienating women. She hooks up with old friend William Selden, who seems more substantial than Ellie’s shallow “friends.” But when Ellie’s divorce settlement disappears in a Ponzi scheme, and her wild ways send Selden away, her desperation leads her to the ambitious, social-climbing Leforte and the comforts of his “enfolding luxury.” While the novel tips its hat to House of Mirth, a simple comparison doesn’t do McMillan justice. Her choice of alternating narration—from first-person (in the form of a childhood friend) to third, rather than wholly omniscient—allows the reader to get to know the increasingly unlikable narrator, a woman trying to absolve herself of guilt over her friend’s downfall. It’s hard to feel sympathy for Ellie, whose desire for acceptance makes learning from her mistakes unlikely. Here is a group of people who waste their resources playing a meaningless game of social comeuppance. McMillan’s characters may lack the complexity of Wharton’s, but she has a sharp eye when it comes to their weaknesses. Agent: Elizabeth Kaplan. (June)