It’s no secret I like sorbet reading—the kind of fiction that is light on the brain and cleanses my mental palate for the heavier novels that linger in my heart and mind after I’ve finished them. This could also be called chick-lit, but while I think that’s a fun term I know there are plenty of women that think it’s offensive. Political correctness aside, what I’m looking for are the following elements: women, fashion, money, bad behavior and intrigue. Oh, and a lot of plot, because I’m not interested in the depths of anyone’s psyche in this type of book nor do I care if I’ve forgotten what the book was about 30 minutes after reading it. Thankfully, books of this kind are not a luxury, there are plenty of them out there for every kind of reader. Here are two recent reads that fit the bill.
A Perfect Heritage: A Novel by Penny Vincenzi
Published by The Overlook Press
Publication date: June 16th 2015
I have been a fan of Penny Vincenzi ever since I read her first book, which is saying a lot because she’s British and her books don’t get released in the U.S. until long after their UK debut. There are some who might say she is chick-lit, but I’m going to disagree if only because I know of no other author who writes chick-lit that averages over 600 pages; 600 pages of highly detailed historical minutiae like the names of British designers and purveyors of 20th century linens, wine, jewelry, men’s furnishings, architects, and more. Sound like too much? No, it’s so well done it is worth it. Instead, maybe the term women’s fiction really applies here. Her novels always have a strong female protagonist and even when set in the early 19th century they are women who defy the conventional wisdom of the times. Plus, they succeed, which I always appreciate.
A Perfect Heritage uses the world of beauty as its framework. In the 1950s Athina Farrell and her husband take one family recipe for face cream and turn it into a household name and cosmetics empire. Add in the children that came along but were never of much interest and now work in the family business, the death of the husband and a founder who has never been told she’s wrong or what anything costs and you’ve got the novel in all its wicked, addictive reading. The House of Farrell is on its last legs, but Lady Farrell still has no intention of letting venture capitalists push her out. She’ll take their money but will spend the entire novel working against business maven Bianca Bailey who initially comes in to clean house but ends up falling in love with the brand and wanting to revitalize it even as her marriage crumbles and her own children’s lives flounder. Add in Athina’s grown children, a woman who’s worked for the company since it began, family secrets: stir well and you’ve got a lovely cocktail of drama.
A Fine Imitation Published by Crown
Publication date: May 3rd 2016
There is the cold, trainer kind of a mother whose only interest in her daughter is as a thoroughbred who may be married off to someone who will enhance the family line. And if that gent has no interest in his new bride, well, she will have been suitably well-taught to channel her energy into shopping and gin and tonics. Lorna Longacre is one such woman and her daughter Vera, is no more likely to oppose her mother than she would be to try heroin. A senior at Vassar she’s never even been to a football game, used slang, or had a drink. Of course, it is 1913, but her new friend Bea Stillman (of the Atlanta Stillmans) has done all of the above and she’s determined to help Vera live before she’s married off. These are the early days of Amber Brock’s debut novel A Fine Imitation. A decade later and Vera has achieved the goal of marrying an appropriate man and now lives in a NYC penthouse. It takes two separate incidents: running into Bea again and the co-op board bringing in an artist to paint a mural in one of the building’s rooms, to make her wealthy life feel distinctly poor.
Some of the aspects of A Fine Imitation are fascinating, namely the proscribed life of wealthy young women in the first half of the 20th century. In modern day America these are the girls who go without underwear, spend money like water, and laugh at the very idea of “the family name”. Shame is an unknown concept today, but for Vera the fear of her mother means she never believes she has options. She isn’t allowed to graduate from Vassar because she needs to plan her wedding and she’s married to a virtual stranger, but she must either behave or be cut off completely. Brock writes well and captures the feel of 1920s Manhattan society and what is a familiar ‘poor little rich girl’ plot is jazzed up with a twist on Vera’s marriage. A Fine Imitation is just that. A perfectly fizzy bit of chick-lit historical fiction.