In classic novels of the Gilded Age, Edith Wharton chronicled the pressures and perils of wealth and society. Former Nashvillian Tatiana Boncompagni does the same in her debut novel, Gilding Lily (Harper Collins, 320 pp., $13.95), paying tribute to Wharton in both substance and style.
Like Wharton's Lily Bart from The House of Mirth, Boncompagni's Lily Bartholomew navigates her way through a culture endlessly concerned with money, status and class. Intelligent and beautiful, Lily is married to Robert Bartholomew, a handsome and charming man who comes from a family with a "pedigree few could match for snob appeal." Lily, on the other hand, is a "relative unknown from an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Nashville," her father a professor at a local university. With their marriage, a "five-carat cushion-cut diamond on her left hand," Lily gains entrée to the "rarified world of the New York socialite." But when she goes to work for a New York Times lookalike newspaper and begins to cover the social scene, Lily's inside connections come back to bite her in the ass.
Boncompagni—whose nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times and Vogue, among other publications—lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children. She knows the world of Lily Bartholomew and has a deft way of conveying a scene through detail and character. At the mommy-and-me playgroups Lily attends with her son, nannies watch the children, and professional storybook readers entertain them. Publicists are hired, Lily explains, "to take you to the next level. Get you in the papers, a nice spread on your closet in Domino or the cover of Quest." It's a world of wealth, privilege and breakfast with "croissants flown in from Laduree in Paris."
Robert's mother, Josephine Bartholomew, is the Cruella de Vil of mother-in-laws, and every scene in which she appears produces one fascinating nightmare after another. When Lily goes into labor during a family brunch at the Four Seasons, Josephine is horrified. "Why she didn't want to schedule her C-section at Lenox Hill like everyone else's daughter, I'll never know," she says. "It's really selfish of her to put the baby through the stress of labor just so she can give birth like one of those hillbillies in their RVs." Such a shame Lily couldn't convince her that Nashville's really a high-class recreational vehicle town.
Tatiana Boncompagni reads from and signs Gilding Lily at Fiandaca, 2209 Bandywood Dr., Sept. 23, 5:30-7:30.
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