AMERICAN DUCHESS by Karen Harper is a great, easy read that follows the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt from her time as a young debutante during the Gilded Age until World War II where she had to flee France.
The spoiler-free review is before the warning below. If you have read the story, feel free to continue to hear my opinions after the warning.
On a cold November day in 1895, a carriage approaches St Thomas Episcopal Church on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Massive crowds surge forward, awaiting their glimpse of heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt. Just 18, the beautiful bride has not only arrived late, but in tears, yet her marriage to the aloof Duke of Marlborough proceeds. Bullied into the wedding by her indomitable mother, Alva, Consuelo loves another. But a deal was made, trading some of the vast Vanderbilt wealth for a title and prestige, and Consuelo, bred to obey, realizes she must make the best of things.
At Blenheim Palace, Consuelo is confronted with an overwhelming list of duties, including producing an “heir and a spare,” but her relationship with the duke quickly disintegrates. Consuelo finds an inner strength, charming everyone from debutantes to diplomats including Winston Churchill, as she fights for women’s suffrage. And when she takes a scandalous leap, can she hope to attain love at last…?
From the dawning of the opulent Gilded Age, to the battles of the Second World War, American Duchess is a riveting tale of one woman’s quest to attain independence—at any price.
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Why I was interested: The cover attracted me to it one day in Barnes & Noble but it wasn’t until I was visiting Avid Bookshop one day that I decided to pick it up. Even though I have a History degree, I can be super picky when it comes to reading nonfiction and biographical fiction books: if it reads rather boring, I will drag it out even if I enjoy the subject. AMERICAN DUCHESS, however, read easily, was vibrant, and reminded me of reading a YA book as it does start with her being of the age of 18 even though it ends when she is in her 60s. I knew about Consuelo Vanderbilt as I do enjoy researching the late 1800s/the Gilded Age but I had never picked up a book focusing solely on her.
Judge a book by it’s cover: I love this cover’s colors, the estate, and the fashion. It made me think immediately of Downton Abbey (even though I understand the show is set during the Edwardian Era of the 1910s through the post-WWI 1920s). It was what caught my eye to pick it up.
What to expect: AMERICAN DUCHESS is a quick read and travels some forty years of Consuelo Vanderbilt’s life but has some really great details within it. I think anyone who picks this book up will have a new appreciation for her and how she worked for women and the lower classes.
Why you should pick this book up: If you want to get into historical fiction or even want to pick up a non-YA book that feels like a YA book then this is for you. If you are curious to read more about the Gilded Age/1890s or about Consuelo Vanderbilt then pick this book up immediately. It is a great beach/summer read.
Want more?: If you have read AMERICAN DUCHESS, you can read the review containing spoilers below. Harper has written a variety of history-based books since the 1980s and you can find more here.
ATTENTION: IF YOU HAVE YET TO READ AMERICAN DUCHESS do not continue reading. The following contains spoilers for the book.
Harper’s AMERICAN DUCHESS is a vibrant read that would be great for any summer trip. Many know about the Gilded Age, some know about Consuelo Vanderbilt, but few know of her beyond her marrying the Duke of Marlborough and befriending his cousin and later Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. However, there is so much more of this woman besides being married for her money. Harper’s story of Consuelo makes learning about her very fascinating and gives an appreciation for a woman who was initially raised to be the perfect American bride-turned-British aristocrat but becomes a champion for women for the lower and middle classes.
As Harper weaves in details of Consuelo’s naivete that leads to her marriage to the Duke of Marlborough at the age of eighteen, Consuelo slowly learns how to transition from being an American bride into a British duchess. It is overwhelming and her marriage is cold. She suffers the expectations of bearing a son at a young age and her husband disapproves of her more modern, American ways. Her solace at an early age, however, is by volunteering in the local Oxfordshire community and modernizing some charities (such as separately packaging the leftover food from the estate for the poor instead of having it thrown all together into a bucket).
For a woman who was constantly under her mother’s thumb as a young girl, Consuelo learns how to be her own woman. And even though her marriage to the Duke fails, Consuelo at once becomes a woman ahead of the times, moving out of the estate, divorcing him, and creating a life for herself. As she does this, she also becomes a champion for working women, arguing for better wages and even the vote in both the United States and United Kingdom.
As Consuelo matures and moves out of the UK for France, she focuses on promoting literature and art, political discussion, and later creates a children’s hospital. She marries the man of her choosing, reconciles with her mother, is hunted by the Nazis, and escapes for the United States. This tour de force read has excitement, determination, and is a great example of a modern woman during a time where women had limited agency. AMERICAN DUCHESS is a great read, and I look forward to reading more of Harper’s books.
What did you think of Karen Harper’s AMERICAN DUCHESS? I’d love to hear your comments below!
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