This review published July 14 in The New York Journal of Books
The Heiresses: A Novel
“The Heiresses” by Sara Shepard is bad—bad, bad, bad, about as bad as any novel I’ve ever not read beyond the first two or three pages.
Page 1: [Corinne, one of the heiresses] was clad in an ivory Monique Lhuhiller gown, the Chantilly lace fabric clung to her body . . . Poppy [a cousin, another heiress] “dressed in a classic white shirt, a khaki trench, skinny black pants, and a pair of bright red Hunter boots that only Poppy could pull off.”
Literally, figuratively? Where were the editors? These descriptions about each character (and there are confusingly many) and this kind of trite writing continue for 300 pages where we learn (for the umpteenth time) that the grandmother, Edith, is never without her mink stole.
And these descriptions just about do it for character development throughout the novel.
But this is a review assignment so I plow on. I read the entire book wondering as I turn every page: Why am I reading this?
There is a plot that goes something like this: The Saybrook family is “new” New York money acting like “old” money. They are in the jewelry business famous for selling diamonds. (Do we ever learn one detail about the diamond trade? No, this is not that sort of book. They could be in waste management or pig farming for all it matters, as long as there is a fortune at stake.)
There are five granddaughters and several grandsons who are all heiresses or heirs to a fortune, but the book only concentrates on the heiresses, as the heirs are too flimsy to be even cardboard cutouts.
But the heiresses by their grandmother’s yardstick are not behaving like her cookie cutter image of “old school” heiresses. They cheat all the time with one another’s husbands, fiancés, father’s business partners, and fathers with their daughters’ friends.
“. . . Will leaned into her, reaching hands up over her shoulders. Every memory of their kisses rushed back to her in one sparkling tidal wave. Her whole body began to tremble, from the tips of her toes, rushing up her spine and all the way into her head. Why are we doing this? She had no idea.”
And neither do we, but ostensibly these interactions are important to the plot, and about as far as it goes for analyzing relationships.
Then there are family business secrets, a family curse, and a mysterious website entitled The Beautiful and The Cursed that posts all the heiresses most private moves and heralds dire threats, a suspect FBI agent (who fucked a now-mysteriously dead) family business partner.
Secret pregnancies and children, unsolved private plane crashes, drunken orgies, suicides, deaths—you’ve got it, nothing for you to think about at all. Any other details I reveal will be “spoilers” for those who read this horrifyingly bad book, but the “clues” are so obviously inlaid that even the most oblivious summer beach reader will know what’s unraveling, long before the characters figure it out.
Setting? Imagine your most flagrant “rich girl” wet dream fantasy lifestyle in Manhattan abetted by family notoriety and star power tabloid attraction . . . and you’ve got it.
Plot development, conflict? Cliché, cliché, cliché . . . and you’ve got it.
Somehow, somewhere, there is something positive about the writing style; Ms. Shepard is a storyteller with a certain brio. Perhaps one day she’ll labor for several years on a manuscript to bring a story to life beyond the facile bed swapping, “poor little rich girl” stories that are strung together here, like a necklace of uncut diamonds.
Janet Levine is a journalist and author of four books including the novel Leela’s Gift.
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