The Social Graces by Renée Rosen explores the rivalry between Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt in the race to dominate society in Gilded Age New York City. Caroline Astor represents the “old money,” while Alva Vanderbilt represents the “new money.” Despite marrying into one of the wealthiest families in America, Alva is not invited to society’s most exclusive parties and organizations. While Alva is desperate to prove that she does belong in the highest levels of society, Caroline is equally determined to protect society by keeping these “vulgar” newcomers out.
The book is told in alternating chapters from Caroline and Alva’s points of view. The more Caroline snubs Alva, the more lavishly Alva fights back with larger mansions, fancier parties, and even new opera houses. But can money really buy happiness? Can a woman spend her way to the top of society? After years of rivalry and personal heartbreak, Caroline and Alva begin to realize that they have more in common than they initially realized. As the outlandish spending of the Gilded Age comes to its peak, the lines between “old” and “new” begin to blur.
I would recommend The Social Graces to readers of historical fiction who enjoy detailed descriptions of the Gilded Age’s opulence or those who enjoy fiction with strong female leads. I enjoyed the alternating points of view and thought the dual narrative helped explain the motivations and actions of these real-life women whose legacies still reverberate through American history. Readers who enjoy this book might also enjoy A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler or American Duchess by Karen Harper.