Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Everybody Rise," by Stephanie Clifford -- A Twenty-First Century "House of Mirth"?

The beautifully written and heartbreaking Edith Wharton novel “The House of Mirth” (1905) is one of my all-time favorite books, one I have read many times and taught several times. A novel I just finished, “Everybody Rise” (St. Martin’s, 2015), by Stephanie Clifford, is clearly and intentionally modeled on the Wharton novel. It too features a young woman in New York who wants to be part of high society, to marry well, and to ensure a secure future. Both Wharton’s Lily Bart and Clifford’s Evelyn Beegan use their beauty and social skills, and a large amount of strategy, to connect to the arbiters of New York society, and both believe that they can achieve a place in that society. Lily Bart has a head start with her connections, but ultimately is not able to succeed in her quest. And even in the 21st century, the hierarchy is too rigid, and the rules are too subtle and too exclusive for social-climbing young women such as Evelyn to have much of a chance. Further complicating the picture, both Lily and Evelyn find themselves spending large quantities of money they don’t have on clothes, travel, charity events, and in Lily’s case, gambling; both end up in deep debt. Both make miscalculations and mistakes along the way. Each of their lives spirals downward in a way that is terrible for the reader to witness. (I don’t want to give away details, but I will say that Evelyn’s story has a less devastating ending than Lily’s story does.) But despite these similarities, I have to make it clear that “Everybody Rise,” while being an interesting and sometimes acute depiction of the power of social class roles, is no “House of Mirth.” It is reasonably well written, and provides many intriguing (and sometimes distressing) specific details about the lives of the society elite in contemporary New York, but it lacks the larger themes and the astonishingly powerful writing of Wharton’s novel. Of course that is an extremely high standard, and although the author herself invites a comparison by choosing to write the story of a contemporary Lily, it is hardly fair for readers to make this comparison. (But of course that is exactly what I am doing here....) “Everybody Rise” starts off as quite entertaining, almost lighthearted, then gradually enters “I can’t take my eyes off this horrible situation” territory. It provides a useful and illuminating exploration of the role of social class at this level of society. I am interested in the workings of social class, and have written academic articles about the topic, so this novel appealed to me on that level, as well as on a human interest level (and OK, I admit it, a little of the same somewhat "guilty pleasure" interest that I sometimes feel on reading Vanity Fair articles about the wealthy and elite). I think that other readers who are interested in New York City life, the culture and workings of the social elite, and/or the lives of young women today, will also find this novel worth reading.
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