A Lady of Good Family: A Novel. Jeanne Mackin. Penguin Group (USA). June 2015. 368 pp. ISBN#: 9780451465832.
In The Gilded Age of the 1920s in New England, a woman was fated to marry, raise children, socialize and talk of mundane matters and travel to Europe to tour, rest and socialize some more. This then is the story of the passionate and famous gardener and landscape designer, Beatrix Farrand, who conforms at a minimum level but truly follows the dictates of her heart and soul.
The story is narrated by Daisy Winters, a close friend of Beatrix, and the story opens with Beatrix’s relationships with her Aunt, Edith Wharton, the author Henry James and Minnie, Beatrix’s mother who is currently in the process of divorcing her husband, also a huge break from acceptable tradition of staying married no matter what troubles prevail. Indeed most of the couples in this novel are either always irritated or unhappy about their spouses. What really comes across in the narrative is the lazy boredom of all these rich couples.
While touring in the Borghese Gardens in Italy, Beatrix meets Italian Amerigo Massimo and her word dramatically changes. It is truly “love at first sight.” While his views about women are more conservative than her perspective, it doesn’t stop the magic and they soon become the talk of society. However, nothing stops her from pursuing her study of gardens and art throughout Europe. It is just as well as the reader receives a shock later on in the story regarding priorities in love.
As an aside, it’s fascinating how Wharton and James are portrayed herein. Edith appears less stiff than how she writes and James seems to be the arbiter of decisions that accords with his writings; it’s all about what society accepts or rejects. Beatrix and Minnie are refreshing rebels herein, indeed!
This reviewer absolutely loved the vivid, energizing descriptions of gardens Beatrix visits and the way she slowly articulates how a garden is meant to refresh, rest and inspire viewers. At the same time, the dialogue is plodding among the rich but miserable other characters. A bit of social satire herein?
A Lady of Good Family… is a fascinating, rich story of love, gardens, society and the woman who would break tradition enough to become one of America’s foremost landscape gardeners, presenting her visions throughout America and even at the White House. Recommended reading for sure!