Monday, January 25, 2016

The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin

The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel.  Melanie Benjamin. Random House Publishing Group. January 2016. 368 pp.  ISBN#: 9780345528698.

1975 is the final year when Truman Capote is at the height of his success, having published the well-known nonfiction books, In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as well as numerous stories, plays and other articles.  In the 50’s and 60’s he has gathered around him a coterie of socially powerful, famous but challenged woman.  Beloved by these women, whose fragile natures he has emotionally healed and strengthened, Truman at first is bolstered by their admiration, indeed adoration.  Their fragility, however, simply mirrors Truman’s own inner turmoil.  This is their volatile story!

First we meet Barbara (“Babe”) Cushing Mortimer Paley, a stylish trend setter who is married to a top executive of CBS, William S. Paley, devourer of women and autocratic businessman feared by all.  Even he is enamored of Truman but the anomaly here is that Babe really doesn’t care about his opinion of “True Heart” Truman because for the first time in her life she knows what it’s like to love and be loved.  This will prove to be a catastrophic surrender on her part.

We next meet Marella Agnelli, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guiness, Pamela Churchill Harriman and Slim Keith, who have all told Truman their deepest, darkest secrets. They represent the trendsetters of the period and those who love the world of fashion, beauty, style will love the numerous descriptions of these ladies’ dress, makeup and food preferences.  What begins as meeting for champagne and hors oeuvres will degenerate over time into drinking and pills.  Unity and love o so slowly evolves into whispered, malign comments arising from unacknowledged jealousy.  Money and power, however, rule the day and their secrets are secure until one momentous day of betrayal by their best friend, Truman!

What begins as a delicious and amusing bonding of these friends, whose daily concerns are about perfect appearances, rapidly becomes a cruel expose that breaks all concerned but especially one declining character!  Truman himself is transformed in ways that startle readers, a picture so far from one would have imagined when starting this story.

This novel is supposedly based on reality and as such stands as the iconic tale, a period piece of literary, historical fiction.  The Swans of Fifth Avenue depicts the fashionistas of the mid-20th Century! Remarkable fiction!

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