A powerful past…a review of The Debutante by Kathleen Tessaro.

debutante dressThe Debutante by Kathleen Tessaro proved to be a really engaging read. As I mentioned in my last post, it’s been a while since I’ve indulged myself in the world of chick lit and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this latest foray. I chose The Debutante having read a couple of Tessaro’s books in the past – it had some mixed reviews on Amazon, so I was a little nervous. The Debutante is certainly a little different to Tessaro’s earlier books, but I found it to be a very rewarding read.

The two inter-locking stories in The Debutante are told from the perspective of 21st century amateur historian Cate and 1930s debutante and society girl Diana Blythe, affectionately known as Baby. Cate happens upon some belongings as she and a colleague prepare items from an old house for auction and the story unravels from there. The juxtaposition of Cate’s narrative alongside letters written by Baby in the 1930s is a clever one, allowing the reader a slight head start on the somewhat detective-like Cate as she tries to discover the truth behind Baby Blythe’s mysterious disappearance.

shoesIn many ways this book reminded me of two others I have read and reviewed for In my good books… . The structure of The Debutante very much reminded me of Possession by A. S. Byatt what with both novels combining a contemporary historian heroine with a mysterious historical counterpart. I will go so far as to say, though, that I found each of Tessaro’s heroines more engaging and less cold than Byatt’s. The second book which The Debutante reminded me of was The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. Baby Blythe’s lifestyle and narrative voice was remarkably similar to that of Linda one of the leading ladies from Mitford’s novel. The waif-like, champagne tippling, society beauty whose power rests in her looks and ‘fun’ demeanour makes for an interesting read. Like Linda, Baby Blythe flits from party to party seeking love and lapping up beauty. Linda and Baby each lead very interesting and, somewhat sad lives and I found both characters came alive from the page. This, I think, is one of the great successes of Tessaro’s novel, the way in which Baby Blythe’s letters bring her to life for the modern reader. It’s deftly done and you get a very genuine perception of what Baby was like.

shoe box 2The present day narrative in The Debutante follows Cate, or Katie, and her own battle to come to terms with her life and her past. Naturally, with this being chick lit, we follow Cate as she moves from one love interest to another, although, this isn’t the typical fodder of fluffy pastel-coloured chick lit novels. Cate’s relationships are a little darker and more complicated than you often find on the page of the average romantic fiction book. This is something I’ve admired Tessaro for in the past, and I do so again; her books definitely fall into the genre of romantic fiction, however, she always succeeds in injecting a little more realism and depth to the stories and characters she creates. The Debutante has strong elements of historical fiction and Tessaro makes the choice to depict her characters having traumas and challenges to overcome and this makes for a refreshing take on the genre.

debutanteI think Tessaro’s novel is something of an examination of the role women cast themselves in. Throughout the story women are contrasted against one another by the differing choices that they make. Baby and her sister Irene make very different decisions in their lives and it’s interesting to see how their stories pan out as a consequence. In the present day, we follow the life of Cate  and glimpse snapshots into the lives of Cate’s mother and her aunt Rachel. There’s also a strong theme in Tessaro’s novel of the relationship between sex and power for both its historical ladies and those of the present day. Tessaro examines the trade-off between sex and power and how women exploit and are exploited by it with differing results.

The Debutante is an insightful and intelligently written novel. I read it very speedily – which usually means I’ve enjoyed a book. I found Tessaro’s story quite gripping and was intrigued by the story’s ending. I would recommend this book to other readers of romantic fiction. It’s well written and easily engages its reader. I enjoyed it.

sense-sensibilityI’m going to indulge myself in a re-read for my next book. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. I have only ever read this book once before, and that was as a very young teenager. I can’t say I was that big a fan on my last reading, preferring Pride and Prejudice  and  Emma. However, I am hopefully a lot older and a little wiser than when I made my last attempt, and so I thought it worthwhile giving it another try.

 

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Filed under 21st century, Books, Fiction, Novel

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