The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Delecorte Press, 2016. Hardcover, 368 pages.
Melanie Benjamin has once again written a beautiful novel. She has the ability to “get inside a character’s head” and use those thoughts to drive the story. Readers have the ability to get to know the characters because of this tactic and thus the characters, for all their flaws and perfections, become relatable.
This novel opens to a discussion between Truman Capote’s Swans (his female friends) during the mid-1970s. Then after that it jumps back to when Truman was new to the group dominated by Babe Paley and her friends within New York high society. From that point onwards readers will follow the friendship that formed between Truman and Babe as they share secrets of their lives, travel together (often with Babe’s husband, CBS executive, Bill Paley, in tow), and attend parties. There is a closeness between the two friends that borders on true love. They love each other unconditionally but Babe was trained to marry well and did while Truman knew he was not meant to partner romantically with a woman. Despite this, they were close, sharing their trials and tribulations, until one disastrous decision ruins everything.
After that decision, the novel continues by tracing the outcome of that event and others occurring about the time of the event. Some of this is hinted at in later timeline chapters edited into earlier parts of the novel, including that opening chapter. The ending also ties in two main supporting characters, Bill Paley and Lady Slim Keith, who while featured throughout the book with either Babe or Truman play a key role as the novel ends.
While I truly enjoyed this jaunt with the upper crust of society and think it was a fun and interesting read, I still enjoyed Benajmin’s novel The Aviator’s Wife more. I do think that is more because of my interest in aviation and the Lindberghs than any flaw in The Swans of Fifth Avenue. I don’t typically read much historical fiction set after the 1940s and this covered the 1950s through the early 1980s. Thus it was fascinating to read about the lives of those in that era and the lavish lives they lived. It was a far cry different than the noveaux rich lives of the Langdons in Early Warning or the Hollywood lives of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable in A Touch of Stardust (review forthcoming). In fact, it is the era that bridges the elegance of the old and new rich we commoners read about or see regularly on TV and Benjamin shows that occurring. She also dealt with aging issues, facing pending death, friendships, and betrayals in this novel. Those of all ages can find something to pique interest within the pages of The Swans of Fifth Avenue.
I’ll admit, prior to this novel I didn’t know much about the characters but I did do some research while writing. Did you know much about Capote or the Paleys? And do you, dear readers, think you’ll read this novel? And do you know of anything similar to recommend?
I received an advanced reader edition of this novel from the publisher for review. This book will be released 1/26/16.
5 thoughts on “Review: The Swans of Fifth Avenue”
I read a review of the book in the New York Times yesterday and wondered if it would be worthwhile. It’s not my era either, and while the topic generally wouldn’t catch my attention, your review makes me think that I’ll give it a try. Thanks.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d like the book considering the focus. However, Benjamin is wonderful for drawing readers in. She made me care about the characters, especially Bab Paley. Perhaps you’ll make the same discovery. Please do let me know what you think if you decide to try the novel.
How much of this book is truth? I grew up in Manhasset in a neighborhood that bordered the Whitney Estate. I use to play as a kid.
Hi Rosemary, unfortunately I do not have an exact answer for that question. Unlike most novels I have reviewed, I have not read a non-fiction book on this subject; I just did a bit of online research to learn more about a few of the characters. However, I have read Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife on Anne Morrow Lindbergh plus several non-fiction books on her and her husband. If the author used the same general format as with that novel, everything would be grounded in well-researched historical events with liberties to expand into the unknown, such as with exact wording within conversations. Does this help?
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