Publication date: March 4, 2014
Fallen Beauty is the story of a lovely young woman, Laura Kelley, who pays the price for one night of passion by becoming pregnant. It’s 1928 in upstate New York and her decision to keep her child, despite the father’s unwillingness to acknowledge her, changes the course of her life. Both her parents are dead and so, at age nineteen, she is left to run their dress shop alone after her sister leaves to get married. Her talents are prodigious but not enough to sway the opinions of the local women who shun her so she struggles to support herself and her daughter.
At the same time as these more mundane aspects of life unfold, there is an alternate universe operating in a remote mountain town nearby. The renowned poet Edna St. Vincent Millay lives on an estate with her husband and hosts parties known for their wildness and free love attitudes. All is in the name of Millay’s work and she draws inspiration from everything around her. There is no repression in her life or her work so when she hosts a party and Laura’s sister attends, wearing one of Laura’s creations, it brings Laura’s talent to Millay’s attention. The problem? Millay’s wild lifestyle and the fact that she slept with her sister’s husband means that despite the much needed income a wealthy patroness would bring her, Laura does not want to makes dresses for her. When circumstances force her to work with Millay she is less than impressed by the poet’s intensity and extreme behavior.
It occurred to me that this need to provoke seemed like adolescent behavior, which made me feel superior to her.
Fallen Beauty meshes the worlds of a woman trying to make a life within the only home she knows and the fantasy that surrounds Millay. One is a person bound tightly by the mores of her time and her own shame and the other is a hedonist with no thought or cares for anyone but herself and her muse. What is most enthralling about Robuck’s storytelling is that she makes Laura’s simple life as interesting to read as the rollercoaster ride that is Millay—not an easy task.
As with past novels, Fallen Beauty utilizes Robuck’s gift for careful research, in combination with her ability to create prose that mimics her subject’s own style. In this way she enhances the facts of their lives. In the case of Edna St. Vincent Millay, there are few high school graduates who did not have to read at least one of her poems at some point in their academic career. What Robuck brings to light is the freedom and wildness with which she embraced life and how her art dictated how she lived it. Even in the modern day, it is possible for judgment to seep in but for anyone with an artistic bent (or dreams) there is much to be said for living solely by emotion and throwing off all the constraints of everyday life. At the end of Fallen Beauty, as the most vindictive and angry of the town’s women seeks to destroy Laura and take away her beloved daughter, it is the example of the self-determined Millay that gives Laura the strength to reclaim her beauty and her life.