Audra (Unabridged Chick)'s Reviews > Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance

Love, Fiercely by Jean Zimmerman
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Shamefully, I grabbed this book on the title and cover alone, and I really had no idea what I was getting into. Happily, this turned out to be a stellar read, engrossing as a novel and just as moving.

Jean Zimmerman, while researching iconography and maps of Manhattan, came across Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, a passionate collector, reformer, and scion of Gilded Age New York City. Initially interested in him, she became fascinated by his wife, Edith Minturn, upon seeing their massive portrait by John Singer Sargent. This book came out of her curiosity about the couple.

Both Newton and Edith came from monied New York families; both were committed to social reform. Edith came from a family of beauties and was renown for her evocative expressions and stature. She was the model for Big Mary, the colossus created for the Chicago World's Fair. Newton was a brilliant architect consumed with desire to provide healthy, habitable house for the poor. Their odd courtship and devoted marriage had the elements of fiction -- such happiness and such sadness -- and I immediately fell for both of them.

In many ways, this is a discussion of an era as much as a biography of two personalities. Zimmerman's sections on art -- and the wealthy's relationship with the funding, creation, participation, and enjoyment of art -- was so eye-opening and relevatory. For example, I didn't realize it was common in the 1890s for art that was commissioned -- like portraits -- to spend a year being displayed in traveling galleries before going to live with the respective owners. Sargent's portrait of Edith and Newton was shocking -- they wore their own street clothes rather than one of his costumes, and Edith's pose is aggressive rather than demure -- and Zimmerman provides wonderful context so we understand just how daring Newton and Edith were.

This couple didn't stop at art when it came to shaking things up, but I'm rather hesitant to list details because it feels a bit spoiler-ish!

My only complaint, and this is me being wicked nit-picky, is that Edith's side of the marriage felt a bit thin to me. It's clear Newton has more ephemera preserved than his wife and as a result, Zimmerman was able to draw on his feelings and thoughts more than Edith. There were moments when Zimmerman made a pronouncement about Edith that left me wondering, 'Is that really what she felt?' and yet, I appreciated her humanizing of these two. It resonated for me and made me go from 'like' to 'love' with this biography. (You can read an excerpt via my Teaser Tuesday to get a sense of the writing style.)

I finished this book with the moody satisfaction I get from a good novel; I missed Newton and Edith, and I wanted more time with them.
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Reading Progress

06/08/2012 page 100
30.0% "Doesn't read like a novel but it does read quickly -- I'm in love with both Edith and Newton."
06/10/2012 page 173
51.0% "I have a giant historical!crush on Newton and Edith. What cuties." 9 comments

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