Author: Martha McPhee
Publication Date: June 2, 2020
Book Description: For fans of Mary Beth Keane and Jennifer Egan, this powerful, moving multigenerational saga from National Book Award finalist Martha McPhee—ten years in the making—explores one family’s story against the sweep of 20th century American history.
Drawn from the author’s own family history, An Elegant Woman is a story of discovery and reinvention, following four generations of women in one American family. As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the narrative shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the winter cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both of their lives.
A profound meditation on memory, history, and legacy, An Elegant Woman follows one woman over the course of the 20th century, taking the reader from a drought-stricken farm in Montana to a yellow Victorian in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small town Ohio to a family reunion at a sweltering New Jersey pig roast. Framed by Isadora’s efforts to retell her grandmother’s journey—and understand her own—the novel is an evocative exploration of the stories we tell ourselves, and what we leave out.
Rating: 3 stars
Review: A sweeping epic family story, An Elegant Woman attempts a grand story of the 20th century, that in times felt like it took a lot of effort to get through.
Told from Isadora the great grand-daughter of Glenna Stewart that really kicks of this story. Glenna is the matriarch of this family and embeds herself in many generations to come. She lives what would seem a very simple life, married with two daughters in the early nineteen-hundreds. Glenna soon realizes that her husband is a cheater and this is not the life she wants any longer. She decides to move her family from Ohio to Montana in the search for a new life and maybe some gold.
Glenna is offered a teaching position, but needs to hide her daughters to be able to take the position. She also becomes a suffragette and involves herself with congressman and senators. During this time she leaves her two two daughters, Tommy and Katherine up their own devices. Tommy ends up giving up her future in support of Katherine. As they grow up, they choose to take very different paths in life.
What then sets up is a pretty messy second half of this book. More generations and way more characters to keep up with, which I had extreme trouble doing. While McPhee wrote an extremely interesting story, it just seemed cluttered with ideas, that seem to get blurred along the way.
The strongest theme to this book is that men are insignificant. Glenna has instilled in her girls you do not need a man, and this seems to follow all the generations even through these women’s marriages.
This had a very strong start, with a bit of weaker back half. If you love epic stories, I think you will enjoy this, but you might want to take notes to keep this family straight.
Thank you NetGalley and Scribner for an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.