Friday, January 22, 2016

The Swans of Fifth Avenue

Title:  The Swans of Fifth Avenue
Author:  Melanie Benjamin
Publication Information:  Delacorte Press. 2016. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0345528697 / 978-0345528698

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Languid, Lovely, Lonely; the swans arched their beautiful necks and turned to gaze at him as he stood rooted to the shore, his feet encased in mud."

Favorite Quote:  "In the end, as in the beginning, all they had were the stories. The stories they told about one another, and the stories they told to themselves."

What is the cost of betraying a trust? What happens when your "True Heart" reveals your secrets to the the world? Truman Capote was True Heart to his swans - Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill, and Babe Paley. These women, with Babe the clear leader, were the symbols of style and wealth in 1960s New York.

In a nutshell, the historical story goes that Truman Capote was given an entree into New York society. He learned their secrets and then published them in a story La Côte Basque 1965 in Esquire Magazine. While theoretically fictional, the story was clearly about the Swans and their private lives. As a result, Truman Capote became persona non grata from the very group in which he found friendship. This book is a fictionalized account of these events. It begins with the publication of the story and then goes back to the beginning - when the Swans meet Truman.

Truman Capote is introduced to New York society as an oddity and almost the pet of the rich and famous. His open homosexuality, unusually public for that time period, makes him non-threatening to the husbands. His ability to truly listen make him a favorite among the wives.

In particular, Truman and Babe develop a closeness - a love affair that relies not on a physical love but on an understanding for and a need for each other. They are more similar than many people realized. This book becomes a character study of these two flawed and lonely individuals.

Underlying Babe's beautiful serene exterior is a scarred and emotionally damaged young woman who cannot believe that anyone could love her for who she truly is. As the trust between them grows, the two, particularly Babe, share more and more secrets. She reveals the secrets of her childhood and of her marriage. Her character is developed so well that even finding her couched in the midst of beauty and wealth, I feel sorrow and pity.

Behind Truman's histrionics is a man with the scars of a neglected childhood and a man constantly looking for approval and for belonging. His character is developed through his over-the-top affected behavior; his constant need for attention; the fact that he chooses to make public the secrets of those he called friends; and the comments of those who surround him:
  • "... that little Truman has ... somewhat of a barbed way of looking at the world."
  • "He'd always been a strange little combination of intense focus while he was writing and impulsive, scatterbrained gadfly when he wasn't."
  • "And that was the secret, the wonder of Truman, she realized suddenly ... He had amused them."
  • "... he seems intent on becoming a caricature comprised of his most studiously affected elements..."
The book is also very much a period piece for surrounding Truman and Babe is the lifestyle of the rich and the famous - the multiple homes, the travel, the yachts, the parties, and the extravagance. The middle portion of the book is rather like a glossy magazine with descriptions of this lifestyle so completely foreign to most of us. As glossy magazines are typically not my reading material, this portion of the book does seem to drag on a bit too long.

Towards the end, the book is very melodramatic. In this instance, the drama matches the extravagance of the time and the extreme character that Truman Capote is. The actions and the emotions are all just a bit exaggerated which works because Truman Capote is depicted as a character for whom everything is a bit exaggerated. I don't know if that is actually true, but it fits in the way this story is told.

My favorite aspect of reading historical fiction is learning about history that I have no knowledge or very little knowledge of. I realize that fiction is just that - fiction. I don't mistake it for history, but, having read the book, I find myself researching the actual history. Fortunately, articles and images of Capote and the swans, especially of the grand Black and White Ball hosted by Capote, are readily available. I learned much from the articles and images, but without this fictional introduction, I doubt that I would have looked up the history. Now knowing the history, I am adding Truman Capote's works to my never-ending to read list.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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