swans feature

Not Your Average Beach Read — We Review “The Swans Of Fifth Avenue”

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ON OUR BOOKSHELVES

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NOVEL: The Swans of Fifth Avenue

AUTHOR: Melanie Benjamin

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2016

REVIEW:

I picked up The Swans of Fifth Avenue, a novel depicting famous people in 1950s New York, thinking it would be a gossip-y, light read. It was, certainly…there’s plenty here about the socialites (“the swans”), where they went, how they dressed, their pasts, their glamorous homes, and life with every luxury money could buy. It tells the story of how Truman Capote befriended them, made his unlikely entrance into elite society, entertained them at his famous Black and White Ball, and caused a literary scandal when he published “La Cote Basque 1965” in Esquire, revealing the swans’ “dirty laundry,” and resulting in his social ostracism—a breach of friendship that was never repaired, and apparently pushed him further into a downward spiral of alcoholism, drug addiction, and increasingly erratic behavior. So there’s plenty here that’s salacious and unseemly, and it’s definitely a compulsively readable book.

But to my surprise, I found it rather more than that, because at its heart, The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a love story: the story of the most surprising affection between Truman Capote and Babe Paley. They made an extremely odd couple, the charming and beautiful society hostess and the short, eccentric, and openly homosexual writer, but somehow, they were kindred spirits, and their relationship as described here is extremely affecting. There’s a true emotional depth to their love story. And, like so many of the best love stories, it has a sad ending. I was much more touched by their heartaches, loneliness, betrayals, vulnerabilities, and deaths than I had expected…and I love that. It’s wonderful and impressive when a novelist can make such a rarefied world of celebrity and wealth, so distant from the way we live now, come alive.

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I’ve read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and In Cold Blood, and of course, To Kill a Mockingbird (in which Dill is based on Truman Capote as a child). I was familiar with Capote’s Black and White Ball partly through its reputation as the party of the century, but chiefly because I’d read Katherine Graham’s autobiography, Personal History, in which she describes being the honoree. But the social history depicted in The Swans of Fifth Avenue is absolutely fascinating, and really enhances those other books for me by putting them in perspective.

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The one thing this book lacks is photographs…I hope that the author, at some point, releases an illustrated version, so we can see just in print just how beautiful Babe and her friends (Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill, C.Z. Guest) were, the clothes, the jewelry, the elegant apartments, the masquerade ball, the dinners out, the celebrities, the yachts. For now, there’s Google images. But even without the photographs, Melanie Benjamin conjures up their world rather remarkably.

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This is certainly a beach read, but you may find it more than a beach read, so do not be surprised to find yourself engrossed, and possibly more than a little moved.

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RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 3 1/2 Whistles

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HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon

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Lead-In Image Courtesy of nadtytok / Shutterstock.com

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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