Friday, February 29, 2008

The Successful Combination of History and Celebrity Gossip

I was introduced to the historical fiction The Luxe by Anna Godbersen in the Style section of last Saturday’s Globe and Mail.[1] There was something very appealing about the idea of reading a novel for “blog research”, so later that day I visited Chapters and purchased my own copy. I knew I had made a good decision when I read the blurb on the back cover of The Luxe by Cecily von Ziegesar, who is the author of the popular book/television series Gossip Girl, and describes the novel stating, “Mystery, romance, jealousy, betrayal, humor, and gorgeous, historically accurate details”. The Luxe most certainly contains all of these qualities, as it follows the lives of both rich adolescents and the young people who serve them, with the former being forced to choose between maintaining a life of luxury or being with the people they love.

Within two evenings I had begun and finished this easy and entertaining read, having reached many of the same conclusions as the Globe and Mail reviewer Leah McLaren: this novel is an 1890s version of Gossip Girl, that is also very reminiscent of today’s celebrities such as Paris Hilton, who are famous solely because they are rich. What McLaren failed to mention, however, is how brilliantly Godbersen understands the importance of “audience”. The Luxe is written for teens and young adults, who will easily be lured into the world of the 19th century through the familiar theme of the wealthy behaving badly. Furthermore, once Godbersen has her readers firmly planted in the 1890s, she envelops them with an accurate historic atmosphere, which is created through the use of well researched details. Margaret Atwood, who covers a much more serious historical topic in her novel Alias Grace, takes a similar approach to writing historical fiction, and points out how involved in the details she became. Atwood explains, “...I found myself wrestling not only with who said what about Grace Marks but also with how to clean a chamber pot, what footgear would have been worn in the winter, the origins of quilt pattern names, and how to store parsnips.”[2]

My public history course touched on many of these same topics in our recent discussion of historical fiction. We came to a general consensus that novels should not replace academic texts, but rather they should be used as educational tools to set a historic tone and spark the reader’s interest to learn more about history. Although I would like to claim that The Luxe will inspire young girls everywhere to start researching 19th century New York City, I am satisfied with that fact that if nothing else, this novel does give readers a glimpse into a historical period that they may never have previously encountered.

[1] Leach McLaren, “Tabloid Tales with a Twist” in The Globe and Mail , Print Edition 23/02/08 Page L3

[2] Margaret Atwood, “In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction”, in The American Historical Review, Vol. 103, No. 5 (Dec., 1998)

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