I tend to read in a feast/fast fashion. I find at times that I can read book after book after book, and at other times I simply cannot finish anything. For the past six weeks I was in one of those times. I tried to read The American Heiress at work during lunch and breaks, but I finally gave up. Here is why.
1 The main character’s name. The main character is a rich American heiress named Cora Cash. I’m not kidding. (To quote Cinema Sins, I kept waiting for Villany A. Badguy to show up.)
2 I remember hearing a quote from E.L James, the author of Fifty Shades of Gray, in which she dismissively stated that she does not understand American culture. This wouldn’t be worth noting except for the fact that she chose to set her book in Seattle! I’ve never read the book, but that fact alone shows that the book is trash. What kind of an author would set a book in a culture she does not understand and then dismisses the culture? (Answer: a terrible one.)
Daisy Goodwin has an even more difficult task. She not only has to understand American culture, she has to understand American culture of the newly rich in the Gilded Age. For the most part, she fails. Her book is written in third person omniscient, but she cannot fully adopt the point of view of her protagonist.
Specifically, I’m referring to the times when she uses “American” as an adjective. She speaks about Cora’s “American confidence.” This gave me pause. Was the narrator referring to Cora’s confidence as American or was Cora referring to her confidence as “American?” If the latter, that is a severe problem. Cora had only been in England for a few days. She had not been long enough to see the difference in cultures, and certainly nowhere near long enough to think of her confidence as in any way, “American.” She would view it as a personal attribute, not a cultural attribute. I decided to overlook it, and give the writer the benefit of the doubt.
Then she did it again.
At one point, Cora’s mother complains about the fact that Cora’s new estate will not have running water and she will have to bathe in a tub filled with water by servants. “Cora laughed at her mother’s American love of progress.”
This is simply a surface stereotype and lazy writing.
(I would like to point out that it makes perfect sense for Americans to embrace technology and progress. The English landed gentry didn’t care about technology for the same reason that the ancient Romans didn’t have many technological advances in farming or construction. That’s what slaves were for, according to Medieval History professor. Plus, their status in their society was driven by how ancient their land, titles, and properties were. Technology implied that they were nevoux riche and therefore of low standing in their society.
My ancestors were German farmers who immigrated to Wisconsin in the late 1840’s. They joined a large number of German peasants who emigrated from Germany in the 19th century drawn by the promise of a large of amount of cheap farmland that they could actually own. My ancestors had a completely different relationship with technology. For peasants, technology meant less labor, and even more importantly, higher crop yields! Higher crop yields were the name of the game. It ensured that they wouldn’t starve. Of course they liked technology! It’s easy to talk about tradition and the preservation of the past when someone else is lugging heavy pails of water and someone else faced starvation.)
Cora had only been in England for a few days. She would not view her mother’s insistence on running water in a rich person’s house as “American.” She would view that as sanity, and the she would view resistance to running water as insanity. It’s a bit harsh, but it’s true. She hasn’t been in England long enough to view her own culture’s practices as anything other than normal, natural, right, and the only way to be.
It is an exciting challenge for a writer to adopt a protagonist from a very different background and to try to embrace the protagonist’s point of view and mindset. Unfortunately, Daisy Goodwin can never engage in her protagonist beyond the surface level. She also cannot observe her own country with the point of view of an outsider. I acknowledge that this is easier said than done, but without that point of view, the story does not work. If she cannot do that, why should I?
Answer: I’m not going to try.