Published by Penguin Books on March 4, 2014
Source: Purchased by Reviewer
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Upstate New York, 1928. Laura Kelley and the man she loves sneak away from their judgmental town to attend a performance of the scandalous Ziegfeld Follies. But the dark consequences of their night of daring and delight reach far into the future.…
That same evening, Bohemian poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and her indulgent husband hold a wild party in their remote mountain estate, hoping to inspire her muse. Millay declares her wish for a new lover who will take her to unparalleled heights of passion and poetry, but for the first time, the man who responds will not bend completely to her will.…
Two years later, Laura, an unwed seamstress struggling to support her daughter, and Millay, a woman fighting the passage of time, work together secretly to create costumes for Millay’s next grand tour. As their complex, often uneasy friendship develops amid growing local condemnation, each woman is forced to confront what it means to be a fallen woman…and to decide for herself what price she is willing to pay to live a full life.
“Lovers of the Jazz Age, literary enthusiasts, and general historic fiction readers will find much to love about Call Me Zelda. Highly recommended.” –Historical Novel Society, Editors’ Choice
I was in a poetry rut. Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth and Wadsworth, Hesse, Byron, The Brownings: I was familiar with them all on a quotable level. I needed a new poetic fix and ended up running my index finger along the spines of paperback books in the poetry section at a Barnes and Noble store in Austin, Texas.
Edna St. Vincent Millay. It was that name that made me pause. There was just something about it. I tipped the book off of the shelf and opened to a random page. The poem I opened up to was The Philosopher. I read it quickly and was a voracious fan by the second verse. I wanted everything I could find by or on Millay.
I read Savage Beauty, a biography on Edna St.Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford next. Erica Robuck draws some of her inspiration and facts for Fallen Beauty from this source. I searched the internet for any fiction or films based on the Jazz-Age Bohemian poet but came up with nothing except the IMDB page for a documentary on Millay that was started a few years back. It has yet to be released.
When I saw an ad for Fallen Beauty on Goodreads I thought, “Finally! Some literary fiction starring Edna St. Vincent Millay!” I’m so happy that Erika Robuck filled the gap and gave all fans of the controversial poet a little piece of scandalous heaven in this book.
The story of Fallen Beauty is familiar enough: a small town girl named Laura gets pregnant, is unwed, and is socially crucified while forced to raise her baby alone. Soon Laura finds herself barely able to pay the bills or keep food on the table for her and her child. That is, until Millay discovers Laura and asks her to create her wardrobe for her upcoming poetry reading tours.
She placed her small hand on the book. “Laura, this is exquisite.”
“I wanted to conjure the recurring images of the moon and the night in this one,” I said, running my fingertips over the silver cape trimmed in pearls and lined in pale blue.”
Laura takes a risk accepting the patronage of a poetess that the town refers to as a witch and a wanton. But Laura has already been living on the fringes of society since having a child out of wedlock, and feels like she’s doing what she must to provide for her child. Laura begins to visit the poet on her hill top manor, away from the judging eyes of the town.
“Their eyes never leave,” said the poet. “Their eyes are your eyes, your conscience reflected back at you. They never leave, but down there you can blame them. You can live with it. Up here you can blame only yourself.”
The plot unfolds like the best kind of opera. It’s a sometimes troubling but fully engaging run of things after Laura lets herself enter Millay’s fold. Erika Robuck cleverly shows how some people do their scandalous living on the outside while some do it on the inside. Entertaining parallels are drawn between Laura, the poet, and other townsfolk. The characters are like a concentrated dose of poetry themselves. They are beautifully fleshed out with relevant emotions and show us the best and worst of the human spirit. The author’s writing poured life force into the psychology and physicality of all the characters featured in this book.
Eve has long been crucified for her great folly, for showing us what sin was, but without it, could we know beauty? Can we fully appreciate the summer without the winter? No, I am glad to suffer so I can feel the fullness of our time in the light.
Robuck’s prose is alluring and potent, much like Millay was. After reading about Edna in Savage Beauty, I was conflicted about how I felt about the poet as a person. Some people might find Edna St.Vincent Millay a hard person to like in fact and fiction. She lived her life in a way that seemed utterly self-serving. She devoured people, men and women alike, for creative fuel and inspiration for her writing. I’m still torn on how I feel about Edna after reading Fallen Beauty but Erika Robuck put into words perfectly the conflicted, obsessive swell of emotions that made Millay who she was. She painted a detailed picture of the bad and good qualities that transfixed so many of Millay’s contemporaries, friends and lovers. I was completely absorbed in how Erika played the fictional character, Laura, off of the real character, Edna, and gave them both something to love and despise in each other.
Even readers who are not familiar with Edna St. Vincent Millay will be able to enjoy this story. It has the same sentimental, sienna-toned feeling that Adriana Trigiani’s The Shoemaker’s Wife has. While reading Fallen Beauty, I kept thinking about how well it would translate into a made for television movie or a mini-series. It would be pure magic to see Edna and all her fire-y, consuming glory come to life on film, and Laura’s seamstress shop and sewing creations on screen. After reading Fallen Beauty, I purchased Hemingway’s Girl and Call Me Zelda, also by Erika Robuck. She’s just that kind of story teller- you’ll want to own everything she writes.
April may be designated Poetry Month but you can enjoy poetry all year long with these cool FREE phone apps provided by the Poetry Foundation, Instant Poetry and Poetry Daily. In honor of Poetry month, I’m giving away a copy of Fallen Beauty and a books of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay to ONE LUCKY WINNER. Enter below!