1910, book review, Cartier's, double life, feminism, historical fiction, Hope Diamond, jewelry, jewelry lore, journalists, M. J. Rose, New York City, no and furthermore, plot-driven narrative, too-perfect characters
Review: Cartier’s Hope, by M.J. Rose
Atria, 2020. 322 pp. $27
Vera Garland would be the envy of most New York women in 1910. Born to a socialite mother and a merchant father whose retail emporium is a household word, Vera has never wanted for any material possession. Nor would she lack the leisure to enjoy them, should she choose. But she doesn’t; she dreams of making her mark in journalism.
To that end, she writes a society gossip column in her gilded-set voice, while, as Vee Swann, she reports on back-alley abortions, tenement life, and corporate malfeasance. She’s got no time or interest in her mother’s plans for her, to wit, a wealthy husband and a career in society. The conflict splits the family, but Vera gets to do what she wants.
Maintaining Vera’s two different personae takes a great deal of sweat (and a little credulity on her friends’ parts, not to mention the reader’s). But it makes a great story, and getting trapped in one identity while needing to be in the other, though an old device, offers excellent possibilities, which Rose ably exploits. Vera wants revenge against the extortionist who brought about her uncle’s and father’s deaths within a week of each other. And the key to her scheme lies within Cartier’s, the world-class jewelers whose premises she may visit with ceremony and complimentary champagne as Vera Garland, but where, as Vee Swann, she’d never expect an audience.
Her plan has to do with the Hope Diamond, whose lore of danger and ill fortune to its succession of owners furnishes grist for Pierre Cartier’s publicity mill. How that dovetails with bringing down an extortionist, I leave for you to discover.
Plot is by far the strongest aspect of Cartier’s Hope and just about the only reason to read the novel. It’s a good reason, though. In the interest of full disclosure, my taste runs toward character-driven narratives — as though you might not have guessed — because some plot-driven novels pay little or no attention to subtlety. So too here, in ways I’ll discuss further down. Yet I have to admire how Rose strings out the story, layering twist after twist, making her protagonist work, so that nothing comes easily, and the “no — and furthermore” feels genuine. Rose also keeps you guessing without tricking you. She’s a generous writer that way; if anyone falls for a misperception or misdirection, it’s Vera/Vee.
The plain prose never draws attention to itself, and Rose limits her descriptions largely to interiors, with sparse, thoughtful detail. The author loves New York, and it shows in the locales portrayed as they were, whether tenements, newsrooms, or the Plaza Hotel. I trust her research in general, though I did find one anachronism: Traffic lights didn’t exist back then.
More troublesome are the language and the characters, who speak and think like latter twentieth-century folk, or even those of the present day. I don’t just mean words or phrases like accessorize or reach out to, but the manner in which people discuss their ideas. Vee and her journalist friends, passionate about women’s rights, seem like retro creations, modern sensibilities and worldviews dropped into 1910. It doesn’t help that some of these scenes feel like information dumps.
But it’s not just the political or social milieu that strikes me wrong. Vera’s father sounds like a gifted psychotherapist as well as a brilliant retailer, a wonderfully thoughtful, considerate man. He’s made one mistake, a whopper, but seems perfect otherwise. Ditto Vera’s love interest, who could be a midcentury intellectual. He’s done one bad thing too, but there are mitigating circumstances, to be sure. These people are too good to be true.
Rose often explains what a character’s trying to do or has just done when it’s obvious. That authorial hand not only feels condescending, as if the reader can’t be trusted to get the idea, but prompts you to wonder what other manipulations are taking place. A skeptical reader (guilty, Your Honor) might suspect sleight-of-hand in the storytelling.
Still, Cartier’s Hope offers that intriguing plot, with legends about jewels thrown in. If that’s your style, you could do a lot worse.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.