Cora Cash, one of America’s greatest heiresses in the late Victorian era, naturally has a scheming mama. And that scheming mama wants her incredibly wealthy daughter married to a British peer. She’d like a prince, but she’ll settle for a duke, regardless of what Cora really wants – which is her American friend Teddy. But when Cora meets the Duke, Ivo, by complete accident, she begins to fall for him and finds herself married to him in very short order. But British society is further from home than just the ocean crossing and Cora soon finds herself in over her head between her mother-in-law, the Prince Regent, and the many preferences and proprieties that encapsulate her new husband’s every day life.
This book is sold as similar to Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, as a book that is reminiscent of Downton Abbey, a television series I recently watched and fell in love with. It had huge shoes to fill, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that it came up short. It was an enjoyable read, but much shallower than all three comparisons. In reality, I came across someone else saying it was like The Luxe series for adults, and I think that’s probably the most apt description I’ve seen yet.
Part of the problem with the book is that much of it is told and little of it is shown to us. Cora is meant to be a stubborn, plucky heroine, determined to escape the shadows of her mother’s influence, but in reality she is a girl who reacts, not a girl who acts. She seems much more comfortable letting her money and comfort slide her along through life without really fighting for anything she cares about. Even towards the end of the book, most of her ‘growth’ consists of ordering the butler to do things to spite her mother-in-law.
The one aspect I really enjoyed was the story of Cora’s colored maid Bertha. Bertha has her own difficulties as a colored lady’s maid, particularly in her native US. Things begins to change for her as she moves to England with Cora and the stigma fades away to some extent, offering her the first chance of an independent life she has really ever had. But her loyalty to Cora often gets in the way. This was actually a really fascinating aspect of the story and had me wondering what ladies’ maids really thought – were they loyal to the women who had fashioned their entire careers? I wished others servants were equally fleshed out because I’m sure the more fleshed out dynamics of an American versus British ‘downstairs’ would have been fascinating. As it is, Bertha ignores most of the other servants, completely isolating herself.
The American Heiress was certainly an enjoyable read that I managed to zip through in just one day. But I think the many comparisons it’s received have done it a disservice, and the book is best treated as a lighter historical read than classic material. Historical beach reading at its best.
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