Book Review: Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen

Letty Larkspur and Cordelia Grey escaped their small Midwestern town for New York’s glittering metropolis. All Letty wants is to see her name in lights, but she quickly discovers Manhattan is filled with pretty girls who will do anything to be a star….

Cordelia is searching for the father she’s never known, a man as infamous for his wild parties as he is for his shadowy schemes. Overnight, she enters a world more thrilling and glamorous than she ever could have imagined — and more dangerous. It’s a life anyone would kill for…and someone will.

The only person Cordelia can trust is ­Astrid Donal, a flapper who seems to have it all: money, looks, and the love of Cordelia’s brother, Charlie. But Astrid’s perfect veneer hides a score of family secrets.

Across the vast lawns of Long Island, in the ­illicit speakeasies of Manhattan, and on the blindingly lit stages of Broadway, the three girls’ fortunes will rise and fall — together and apart. From the New York Times bestselling author of THE LUXE comes an epic new series set in the dizzying last summer of the Jazz Age.

Rating:

A-

I just finished binge-watching Peaky Blinders, and I just re-read, and was once again disappointed by, The Great Gatsby. I picked this book up because I wanted to read something, anything, set in the 1920s. It didn’t even have to be well-researched or well-written; it just needed to prolong my foray into the world of bootleggers and speakeasies.

I have to admit that I was a bit dubious when I first spied the cover. I mean, come on, a beautiful flapper girl in an ephemeral dress, wearing a Mona Lisa smile? It led me to believe that I’d find something flighty and frivolous and romantic within these pages. Imagine my surprise when, in the first two paragraphs of the book, I found this to be not only much more somber than I first surmised, but also well-researched and well-written.

“It is easy to forget now, how effervescent and free we all felt that summer. Everything fades: the shimmer of gold over White Cove; the laughter in the night air; the lavender early morning light on the faces of skyscrapers, which had suddenly become so heroically tall. Every dawn seemed to promise fresh miracles, among other joys that are in short supply these days. And so I will try to tell you, while I still remember, how it was then, before everything changed – that final season of an era that roared.

By the summer of 1929, when the weather was just getting warm enough that girls could exhibit exactly how high hemlines had risen, Prohibition had been in effect for so long it had ceased to bother anyone much. The city had a speakeasy per every fifty souls, or so the preachers liked to exclaim on Sundays, and sweet-faced girls from the hinterlands were no longer blinded by wood alcohol, for the real stuff had become plenty easy to get. The Eighteenth Amendment had converted us all to grateful outlaws.”

This book was everything I needed and more. Set in New York City during the summer of 1929, it follows the lives, loves and tragedies of three Bright Young Things: Astrid, Cordelia, and Letty. These women flocked to the city along with thousands of others during prohibition because hemlines were higher, the morals were looser, the gin flowed freely, and it was where anyone who had grown too big for their small town went to escape their drab lives in favor of something flashier.

I immediately found myself immersed within their stories. Theirs could be the cautionary tales of any countless real life flappers, heiresses or actresses that strolled the streets of New York during prohibition, and because of Godbersen’s flawless characterization, I found myself forgetting that this was fiction.

Less than a chapter in, I forgot I was even reading. Godbersen’s writing is an art form in and of itself, and sadly, it’s a dying one. In these times of short attention spans and fractured sentences, the long, beautifully descriptive passages of yesteryear are falling to the wayside. It leaves those of us who grew up with the classics and the never-ending, Dickensian style run-on sentences bereft.

So hell yes, Anna Godbersen, for penning these gorgeous, free-flowing, sometimes paragraph long sentences. Never change.

I’m going to go ahead and say something pretty controversial right now. People Who Know What They’re Talking About claim that The Great Gatsby is the quintessential roaring twenties novel. They say that it defines an era. I disagree. Because of the protagonist’s detached personality, I never really feel the frenetic energy that rages all around him. While reading Bright Young Things, I felt it. Hard.

This book perfectly captures what comes to mind when I think about the 1920s. While I was lost within its pages, something magical happened: I felt my feet tapping to the jazz that played inside my head; I heard the tinkling laughter of socialites mixing with the darker chuckles of gangsters; I found my thoughts slowed by gin; I half-turned to catch the eye of the handsome stranger who wasn’t there. I was feverish, infected by the craic of a bygone era. I forgot that I live in a cold world of computers, where people prefer to communicate through devices instead of speaking aloud.

For a few fleeting hours, I lived in a time where anything was possible. Where, for the first time in history, farm girls could find fame on stage. Where coal miners made their fortunes from contraband grain alcohol. Where oil tycoons and cab drivers rubbed elbows at underground boxing matches.

But be warned. Everything is not sunshine and roses within this book. This is not a romance novel. These girls learn hard, believable life lessons, and they’re not easy to love. These are complicated characters; sometimes flighty, sometimes wise beyond their years, sometimes tragically naïve, and sometimes frustratingly selfish. To me, their realistic portrayal was part of the genius of this novel.

Everything goes to hell for them about the 80% mark, and Godbersen builds to this moment flawlessly. By the time I climbed to the climax of the story, I was wound so tight that I was holding my breath, because I knew, I just knew, that heartbreak lay around the turn of the next page. And I was right.

And I loved every minute of it.


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