Author: Jean Zimmerman
Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography / 1890s / Belle Epoque / New York City / New York High Society / John Singer Sargent / Art Critique / Chicago World's Fair)
Publisher/Publication Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (3/13/2012)
Source: The publisher.
Did I finish?: I did -- I read this one like I do novels, gulping huge chunks at a time.
One-sentence summary: A biography of a marriage between two passionate, learned, and philanthropic members of New York City's glittering society.
Reading Challenges: Dewey Decimal
Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- I'm a huge Sargent fan, so it was guaranteed I'd love it for that alone; but I also enjoy the off-center layout and gold trim along the edges.
I'm reminded of...: Philip Herring, Molly Peacock
First line: I saw her for the first time in a work of art.
Is... this the kind of book my wife and I treasure because it makes for great vacation planning?: YES. Zimmerman references many specific addresses and locales, which means the next time my wife and I go to NYC, we're hitting up these places.
Did... I genuinely like Newton and Edith?: YES. Zimmerman has the novelist's skill in making human this rather distant, slightly unclear figures, and I really wanted Newton and Edith as my besties.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a wonderfully readable biography about a fascinating couple from Wharton's glittering New York City.
Why did I get this book?: I saw 'Gilded Age' and couldn't resist.
Review: Shamefully, I grabbed this book on the title and cover alone, and I really had no idea what I was getting into. Happily, this turned out to be a stellar read, engrossing as a novel and just as moving.
Jean Zimmerman, while researching iconography and maps of Manhattan, came across Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, a passionate collector, reformer, and scion of Gilded Age New York City. Initially interested in him, she became fascinated by his wife, Edith Minturn, upon seeing their massive portrait by John Singer Sargent. This book came out of her curiosity about the couple.
Both Newton and Edith came from monied New York families; both were committed to social reform. Edith came from a family of beauties and was renown for her evocative expressions and stature. She was the model for Big Mary, the colossus created for the Chicago World's Fair. Newton was a brilliant architect consumed with desire to provide healthy, habitable house for the poor. Their odd courtship and devoted marriage had the elements of fiction -- such happiness and such sadness -- and I immediately fell for both of them.
In many ways, this is a discussion of an era as much as a biography of two personalities. Zimmerman's sections on art -- and the wealthy's relationship with the funding, creation, participation, and enjoyment of art -- was so eye-opening and relevatory. For example, I didn't realize it was common in the 1890s for art that was commissioned -- like portraits -- to spend a year being displayed in traveling galleries before going to live with the respective owners. Sargent's portrait of Edith and Newton was shocking -- they wore their own street clothes rather than one of his costumes, and Edith's pose is aggressive rather than demure -- and Zimmerman provides wonderful context so we understand just how daring Newton and Edith were.
This couple didn't stop at art when it came to shaking things up, but I'm rather hesitant to list details because it feels a bit spoiler-ish!
My only complaint, and this is me being wicked nit-picky, is that Edith's side of the marriage felt a bit thin to me. It's clear Newton has more ephemera preserved than his wife and as a result, Zimmerman was able to draw on his feelings and thoughts more than Edith. There were moments when Zimmerman made a pronouncement about Edith that left me wondering, 'Is that really what she felt?' and yet, I appreciated her humanizing of these two. It resonated for me and made me go from 'like' to 'love' with this biography. (You can read an excerpt via my Teaser Tuesday to get a sense of the writing style.)
I finished this book with the moody satisfaction I get from a good novel; I missed Newton and Edith, and I wanted more time with them.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Love, Fiercely to TWO lucky readers, thanks to the publisher! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 6/29.