Lack Luxstre

by Wardog

Wardog is yet again judging books by their covers in her review of The Luxe.
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I should probably set up a new Fb Theme for "books I have judged by their covers" although actually I can only think of Maledicte and this one. I picked up The Luxe because it was breath-catchingly beautiful. Just look at that dress. Wouldn't you just die for a dress like that? Which is kind of ironic really because The Luxe opens with a funeral.

The Luxe is a piece of young adult fluff, and although it doesn't actually have much to recommend it beyond the cover, I somehow found myself reading it anyway. It's basically Gossip Girl via Edith Wharton, or it tries to be. It's set in fin de siecle New York and, although the author has clearly done her research, the sense of period evoked - rather like the book itself - is ultimately superficial. Despite the clothes and manners and the social setting, its characters are all 21st century boys and girls at heart. In her ending notes to the book Godberson explicitly says she chose to use modern dialogue and prose, rather than mimicking the style of the times, in order to keep the text lively and accessible; and, for the most part, this works (although it irritates me, personally - stop saying "is all" for God's sake) but the fact that it extends to actions as well as speech only exposes the fact that The Luxe is all style and no substance. The setting is mere, if opulent, distraction from the unoriginality of everything else going on in the book.

As I have said, The Luxe opens with the funeral of society beauty, Elizabeth Holland and then leaps helpfully back in time to cover the events immediately preceding her tragic demise. There is, a plot, as such: lovers are star-crossed, bitter rivals clash, hearts flutter and machinations are enacted. But the entire plot is so tear-inducingly obvious from the get-go that it makes reading the book little more than an exercise in joining the dots. Elizabeth is in love with the coachman, Will Kellerman (get a clue, girl, he's the coachman, have some standards!), but has to marry the oh-so-rich-and-handsome Henry Schoonmaker to save her family from financial ruin. Diana, her younger sister, seems to developing rather a tendre for Mr Schoonmaker too, and the tarty daughter of the local nouveau-riche, Penelope, also wants him. Oh noes! What will they do?! However will Elizabeth reconcile duty and twue wuv! The characters fall into the usual archetypes-ahem-stereotypes: Elizabeth Holland is blonde-haired, beautiful, good, compassionate, gentle, obedient, blah blah blah. Her younger sister, Diana, is a free-spirited brunette who chafes against society's restrictions blah blah blah blah. There's Penelope Hayes the slutty schemer. There's Henry Schoonmaker the gorgeous jock-I-mean-rake. And the usual assortment of parents who just don't understand. And some other equally generic people who I can't be bothered to recount here.

There's no excuse for Elizabeth Holland. Given that she's as wet as a pirate's hankie, she'd probably be a semi-decent portrait of a circa 1890s girl, if she didn't nevertheless do a handful of utterly 21st century things - like bonking the coachman, for example. Now, I know they're in love for reasons that never quite become clear to the reader (this great love having been established far in advance of the beginning of the book) but I can't believe that a properly brought up New York debutante would throw away her virginity (her only real asset) on a common servant. Elizabeth does get round to taking some action / some responsibility later in the book but only having whimpered and fluttered her way through most of it. The (dis)advantage of having such a thoroughly unlikeable heroine did mean that I warmed to the other, equally ineptly drawn, characters rather more than I might have done otherwise. Diana, despite being feisty-by-numbers, is actually kind of charming and her gradually unfolding relationship with Henry was rather nice to watch. I also found myself like Penelope Hayes. Even though she has one character trait (she is the Bad Girl), the fact she couldn't stand Elizabeth endeared her to me.

I managed to get over the language after a couple of chapters, but I couldn't get over the behaviour of the characters. All the girls in the book are far too free and easy with their reputations - sneaking off at all hours to have assignations with various men in green houses and stables and even in their own apartments. In fact, virtue is treated with such casual disregard by everybody that it's hard to take Diana's frustration with the constrictions of her world seriously. We're told repeatedly that they live under scrutiny in a world dominated by social mores but we never see it influencing or curtailing behaviour in the slightest and, thus, it doesn't seem real.

The Luxe is basically a shallow, unoriginal, ill-conceived book but ... well ... there's also something about that makes it oddly readable, even pleasant. I know I'm not the target audience and so I'm likely being harsher on it than it deserves but given that I have read some truly life-changing, beautifully written YA fiction recently I don't think the fact it is targeted at teenagers is an excuse for its deficiencies. I do wonder if it's partially just Godberson hitting her stride (another Luxe novel is already in the works and the cover is equally fabulous) because the fact I kept on reading must say something beyond exposing the fact I might be some kind of literary masochist. Her prose style is so bland and inoffensive (bar the occasional clunker: "he could feel the life of quiet gentility already rolling out before him, like the endless manicured lawns on which so many narcoleptic garden parties had been held..." - now maybe I'm being pedantic but can you have a narcoleptic garden party?) that it goes down like Heinz tomato soup and there's something quite comforting in knowing exactly what you're getting. I don't exactly recommend The Luxe (although the clips from various in-text documents between chapters are cute) but, I guess if it was the sort of thing you were looking for, it's approaching competent within the limitations it sets for itself.
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