Downton Abbey fans who miss the hit period drama as much as I do will want to give Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress a try. This novel will at least partially fill the void until the Crawleys and their servants return in late 2012 or early 2013 (depending on which side of the Atlantic you reside).  A review blurb on the front cover of my paperback edition said as much, so needless to say, I was intrigued right away.

Originally published in the UK as My Last Duchess, The American Heiress takes place in the 1890s and tells the story of Cora Cash, heiress to a vast flour fortune. Cora is a beautiful, charming young woman who is the belle of New York and Newport, and she is widely believed to be the richest girl in America. However, Cora’s domineering mother wants a title for her daughter, and such a thing cannot be found in the United States, even for the wealthiest people. So, Cora travels to England to join the growing number of American heiresses seeking husbands among Britain’s titled aristocracy. Early on in her stay in England, Cora meets the handsome, mysterious Ivo Maltravers, Duke of Wareham. The two are soon engaged and married in a lavish New York wedding.

Of course, Cora’s marriage to Ivo is no fairy tale. Cora finds her new husband mercurial and difficult to understand, and it is hard not to wonder if he loves Cora or just her money. To make matters worse, Cora is irritated by her new mother-in-law and overwhelmed by the traditions and rules of England’s centuries-old aristocracy, where the servants can be as snooty as their employers. As more secrets and traps emerge, Cora often feels lonely and confused, sometimes even longing to return to America. If she is ever to be happy in her new life, she must become stronger than the shallow young woman she was when she first arrived in England.

The American Heiress is not a great literary work that offers in-depth analysis of the class systems of the late 19th century. However, it is a very entertaining novel, and I think it might offer a better understanding of women like the Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey (whose name, incidentally, is also Cora) and what they went through early on in their marriages to British dukes and earls. As any good historical fiction book should be, it is full of vivid detail of the clothes, houses, and social lives of those lucky enough to be rich in the 1890s. I loved reading about the incredible gowns the women wore and the lavishness of the Newport parties. Those details alone make the book a worthwhile read if you’re just looking for something fun. I can only imagine how magnificent a film adaptation of this book would look.

The characters, though not particularly multidimensional, are well drawn and interesting enough to keep readers’ attention. While I would have liked to see some more significant development in Cora herself, I found her to be likable and was rooting for her as life in England got more and more frustrating. The most compelling character, I thought, was Cora’s African-American maid, Bertha Jackson, who faces challenges that neither Cora nor most of the other characters can truly understand. Bertha’s subplot is a bit sloppy at times, but Goodwin does a good job of conveying how isolated Bertha often feels; it’s clear that even Cora, who feels like a shut-out foreigner through much of the book, cannot fully grasp what life must be like for her maid. As for the Duke, Cora’s new husband, he is an intriguing but often irritating figure. While I pitied him for the difficulties he had faced in his life, I was also constantly wary of him and sometimes even wishing ill on him. I think Goodwin may have been trying to channel some of the romantic or Byronic heroes of British literature when she wrote this character, but Ivo is no Mr. Rochester, and he’s certainly no Mr. Darcy. Nevertheless, he is a very suitable central male character for a novel like this one.

I believe this book will prove a fun, escapist read for historical fiction fans. It takes place earlier than Downton Abbey and doesn’t have nearly as many characters, but anyone who enjoys the show’s beautiful sets and costumes and its captivating drama will find much of the same to appreciate in The American Heiress. Don’t be surprised if, like me, you start casting that hypothetical movie adaptation in your mind before you finish reading it.

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