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Novels about the One Percent
Today we have two very different novels that feature the lives of the uber-wealthy.
I love Jamie Watson’s reference to Brideshead Revisited in her starred review of The Last Enchantments. I was completely obsessed with that novel when we read it in senior year English, and I think the fact that I never fully understood the relationships, the mystery of them, was half the appeal. (That and the BBC miniseries!) The Last Enchantments shares that mysterious feel, but is set in the new millenium. The contemporary Oxford University experience will pull in young readers.
Charles Finch has a Last Enchantments tumblr page that is pretty much just a series of gorgeous photographs of Oxford. Nothing wrong with that!
Savage Girl is a thriller set in high society Manhattan during the Gilded Age. It has been compared to Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, Edith Wharton and Edgar Allan Poe–quite a heady mixture. Of course, part of the key for teen readers is the way it all begins. PW’s starred review kicks off, “The prologue of Zimmerman’s superior historical thriller will suck most readers in instantly.”
As for authenticity, Zimmerman knows her New York City history. She’s also the author of Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance, nonfiction that features the same period.
* FINCH, Charles. The Last Enchantments. 336p. St. Martin’s. Feb. 2014. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781250018717; ebk. ISBN 9781250018700.
This novel brings to mind Brideshead Revisited or The Great Gatsby with its tale of contemporary “One percenters” in graduate school at Oxford. The narrator Will, an American in the throes of a quarterlife crisis, never feels false but can be maddening. He never wants what he has, whether it’s his longtime girlfriend whom he left behind in New York, the townie girl with whom he has a few flings, or any of the possibilities open to him at the end of college. But he also doesn’t have what he wants, namely, the even more maddening Sophie, who is in the midst of her own dysfunctional relationship. Secondary characters sparkle with intelligence and wit, and sometimes shock with their elitism and casual racism. Despite some digressions into heavy intellectual discourse, studying at Oxford is made to seem not all that different from any college—everyone gets drunk, hooks up and isn’t particularly ready for “real life” to start. Will’s melancholy realization, “I think of it sometimes, and feel sad to contemplate how it will be, this place I love so much, finished with me before I finish with it” refers literally to a character’s death, but figuratively to anything coming to an end, a thought that is likely to resonate with teens, especially intellectual, emotional ones, coming into their own sense of an ending as they go on to their next life stages.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
ZIMMERMAN, Jean. Savage Girl. 416p. Viking. Mar. 2014. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9780670014859; ebk. ISBN 9781101616321.
The wealthy Delegates reside solidly in the upper tier of 1875 New York City society. The family is headed by Freddy, who collects people like others collect butterflies, and his wife, Anna Maria, who dotes on her two sons, Hugo, a Harvard student, and teenaged Nicky. Their extended family includes two of Freddy’s “acquisitions”: Anna Maria’s maid, Song Tu-Li, a Chinese immigrant, and Tahktoo, a Zuni two-spirit person, physically male but considered a third gender, blending masculine and feminine natures. Freddy finds a prize in a traveling sideshow— the Savage Girl, a wild, dangerous young woman supposedly raised by wolves. He is an avid proponent of nurture over nature and believes he can transform her into a proper lady fit to be accepted into their upper-class world. Fawned over by Anna Maria, Tu-Li, and Tahktoo, she eventually becomes presentable, but something in her wild nature remains. The Savage Girl never gives up her independence and agency despite others’ belief that they control her. Hugo is alternately obsessed and frightened by her, but eventually succumbs to love, a decision that may cost him his life. The rigid societal rules of this era, especially as related to women’s behavior, provide an interesting backdrop to this story of mystery, murder, and revenge. Historical fiction fans will appreciate the immersion into the Delegates’ high-society world, and mystery fans will be intrigued by the trail of blood and mutilation that seem to follow in the Savage Girl’s wake.—Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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