For about three years now, some of my girlfriends and I have been meeting monthly for Book Club. These evenings usually involve a lot of wine, food, and girl talk, with varying levels of actually talking about the book. We’ve read everything from “The Help” to “Three Cups of Tea” to “The Hunger Games.”
This past month’s book club, we read “Gilded Age” by Claire McMillan.
The novel is a take on Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth.” Set in Cleveland, “Gilded Age” follows Ellie Hart as she moves back to her hometown after a scandalous divorce and attempts to reestablish herself in Cleveland society. There is of course a lively cast of characters, from smarmy suitors to dirty mistresses, to add to the plot.
There are also lots of familiar Cleveland scenes, such as Severance Hall, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Cedar-Fairmount that add to being able to really picture what’s happening in the novel.
When we selected this book, I tweeted about reading it for book club and Claire McMillan responded that she has been stopping by book clubs to chat with her readers. Oh, the power of social media! Of course, I jumped at the chance to have the author join us to discuss the book.
As we chatted and ate and drank wine, we found out more about what inspired Claire in writing this book. A confirmed Edith Wharton lover, Claire wanted to pay homage to her favorite writer. She also wanted to set the book in Cleveland. Though not a native, Claire has grown to love her adopted city and wants to celebrate it on a national level. Claire told us that many of her readers around the country really respond to her description of Cleveland and feel like it could be their city too. There’s something unique and yet universal about it.
Claire was kind enough to sign my friend Jennifer’s book (the only one of us who didn’t use an e-reader) and also brought me a lovely present which will be my next read: “Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology,” full of essays by Cleveland writers.
More than anything else, what I really responded to in “Gilded Age” was the idea of wanting (choosing!) to come back home to Cleveland. Multiple characters throughout the novel returned to this city. And this paragraph from “Gilded Age” definitely got me choked up:
Everyone I know in Cleveland went away to college, found a spouse, maybe lived in a larger city for awhile, but eventually they moved home. They chose to come back. When you do, it’s because you’ve lived anonymously long enough. You want to come back to the place where people know you and your mother and your grandmother, and probably even your great-grandmother...
You return because a hundred years ago Cleveland’s iron and steel barons built the neoclassical art museum, and John Severance built his wedding tribute of a concert hall. The Terminal Tower, formerly the tallest building outside New York, still looks proud. You return because the brownfields are slowly being turned into urban gardens, and Tremont hasn’t lost its bohemian blue-collar vibe…You love the huge white windmill that churns next to Browns Stadium right on the edge of Lake Erie, not far from the closed steel mills. It’s Cleveland’s beacon to those who want to move forward, to change…
From “Gilded Age” by Claire McMillan, Chapter 8, pages 95-96, copyright 2012, Simon & Schuster.
It was amazing to read in a novel so much of what I felt when I moved back to Cleveland. I also know the ladies I spent the evening with for book club are part of my reason for coming back to this city!