Review: An Elegant Woman by Martha McFee

I love a good multi-generational saga, so I was very excited to get an ARC of this book and even more pleased when it turned out to be a brilliant one.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

Drawn from the author’s own family history, An Elegant Woman is a story of discovery and reinvention, following four generations of women in one American family. As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the narrative shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the winter cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both of their lives.

A profound meditation on memory, history, and legacy, An Elegant woman follows one woman over the course of the 20th century, taking the reader from a drought-stricken farm in Montana to a yellow Victorian in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small town Ohio to a family reunion at a sweltering New Jersey pig roast. Framed by Isadora’s efforts to retell her grandmother’s journey—and understand her own—the novel is an evocative exploration of the stories we tell ourselves, and what we leave out.

While all of this blurb is true, An Elegant Woman seemed to me most to be a story about very different women and the very different choices they make in their lives spanning multiple generations in America. The story is told through multiple character’s experiences, and the narration jumps around frequently.

My thoughts

I was immediately drawn in to this story: from the beginning, we know that Isadora’s ‘Grammy,’ variously known throughout the book as Thelma, Tommy, and Katherine, was quite the character, regaling her young granddaughters with incredible ancestry and rich family stories. The narrative skips around a lot, starting when we move from the granddaughters sorting through their late grandma’s things to Tommy as a 6-year-old child whose mother, Glenna, takes her two young daughters with her, leaving her husband in Ohio and heading west for a new life in 1910. Glenna is not a good mother, and leaves her very young children to be raised by others and then by themselves. Tommy cares for and raises her little sister, Katherine, and then makes her own way in the world.

There is an underlying theme of falseness throughout this story. Life is messy, and people tell lies and embellish. Even the most elegant woman has history and secrets. Tommy takes her sister’s name, her sister takes a different name, Glenna does what she pleases without much regard for her daughters, telling lies and leaving things out as she makes her way. Winter has her secrets, including a secret love, a difficult relationship with her mom, and a complicated family of her own. Isadora’s generation, with the help of a great uncle, try to piece their colorful family history together and separate the truth from the fantasy.

McPhee’s writing is gorgeous and vivid: the descriptions of the various settings are lushly detailed and the characters are well-drawn. So much intricate information is thrown at the reader, along with a cast of unique characters spanning over more than a century, and yet somehow the plot, timelines, and various narratives are easy to follow. Beyond that, the story is enthralling. I couldn’t stop reading once I got started. The only possible complaint I could have are that some stories end almost too soon—I was left wanting just a bit more time with some characters, but I suppose that’s how life is, with the inevitability of time.

Some of my favorite quotes come from near the end of the novel, and are about human life, death, and the histories of us:

“And just like that, a life is overthe urgencies, the fights, the stories, the sweet peas, the rattlesnakes, the attempts to make something of it, bend it and stretch it and configure it with our wills, give it a narrative, a history, a story, to make it amount to something.”

“Close your eyes. Imagine our historic moment, all that it entails. Imagine a thousand years from now what someone would write about it. Would it fill a sentence? A paragraph, at most? One sentence tells the history of us gathered here today, our lives now so rich in detail, filled with love and hate and joy and dramas. We, all of us, are reduced to a sentence, crushed and overpowered and hidden behind the flimsy weight of that sentence.”

An Elegant Woman is about women: mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, friends. It’s about complicated relationships and history and messy, real family; doing your own thing and still owning your piece of what came before you. I absolutely love this cover, and think it perfectly expresses the themes of the book:

I highly recommend this lovely book to those who enjoy intricate, slow family sagas.


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