Fallen Beauty

Fallen Beauty

by Erika Robuck

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Overview

“Without sin, can we know beauty? Can we fully appreciate the summer without the winter? No, I am glad to suffer so I can feel the fullness of our time in the light.”

Upstate New York, 1928. Laura Kelley and the man she loves sneak away from their judgmental town to attend a performance of the scandalous Ziegfeld Follies. But the dark consequences of their night of daring and delight reach far into the future.…

That same evening, Bohemian poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and her indulgent husband hold a wild party in their remote mountain estate, hoping to inspire her muse. Millay declares her wish for a new lover who will take her to unparalleled heights of passion and poetry, but for the first time, the man who responds will not bend completely to her will.…

Two years later, Laura, an unwed seamstress struggling to support her daughter, and Millay, a woman fighting the passage of time, work together secretly to create costumes for Millay’s next grand tour. As their complex, often uneasy friendship develops amid growing local condemnation, each woman is forced to confront what it means to be a fallen woman…and to decide for herself what price she is willing to pay to live a full life.

Lovers of the Jazz Age, literary enthusiasts, and general historic fiction readers will find much to love about Call Me Zelda. Highly recommended.” –Historical Novel Society, Editors’ Choice



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101615638
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/04/2014
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 364,430
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Erika Robuck is the national bestselling author of The House of HawthorneFallen Beauty, Call Me Zelda, Hemingway’s Girl, and Receive Me Falling. She is a contributor to the fiction blog Writer Unboxed, and she maintains her own blog, Muse. She is a member of the Hawthorne Society, the Hemingway Society, the Historical Novel Society, and the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. She lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with her husband and three sons.

Read an Excerpt

LAURA

Our quick breath encircled our heads in the late-winter air as he pulled me by the hand, through lines of Model Ts and Cadillac Coupes, toward the glow of the Colonial Theatre. My body coursed with elation and guilt, every bit as intoxicating as the rum drinks he'd mixed for us out of the trunk of his car. The frenzy of the Jazz Age had overflowed from the cities into smaller towns like ours in music, film, fashion, and literature, resulting in restlessness and tension between generations and ideals. Fu¬eled by the energy of the new, we had toasted our agreement: That night it was only us in the world, and we would live like it was ours.

He'd lifted a triple-stranded pearl necklace over my head and set it on my skin, kissing the scar on my collarbone, a relic from the first night we'd found each other. He whispered that the neck¬ lace was only costume jewelry, but one day he'd buy me the real thing.

As we hurried toward the theater it occurred to me that time was made of moments like doorways one could never go back through to the way it was after crossing them. That night was a doorway, but I had no power to stop our passage. Distant church bells ignited my doubts like incense, however, and I dug my heels into the grass. When my love turned to see why I'd stopped, his profile stirred me-the sharp jawline, the fine sheen on his skin from his exertion, his pale blue eyes shining from the light of the theater. I often think of him that way, outlined in the lights, with the grin of the waxing crescent moon over us, lead¬ing me toward the most exhilarating night of my life.

"It's all right," he said. "We've come this far:'

Cold air tickled my neck from my newly bobbed blond hair. I glanced down at my gold evening dress and touched the match¬ ing feathered headband I'd sewn in secret, night after night, hid¬ ing it from my father and even my sister, losing sleep because I knew they must not know. They wouldn't approve or understand, and my younger sister would have wanted to come. In the eigh¬ teen years since her birth, just a year after mine, I'd never kept anything from Marie, but that night I wanted something for my¬ self, alone.

My love had motored us an hour north and east from our

Hudson River Valley town of Chatham, New York, to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to see the Ziegfeld Follies-a daring show featur¬ing the most beautiful girls, talented dancers, and elaborate trav¬eling production in the world. The famous Denishawn Dancers were fresh from the Orient, in company with their well-known leaders, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn and the glamorous Mar¬ilyn Miller, preparing to dazzle the sold-out crowd. The car ride had been thrilling and terrifying- a reminder of the first night we'd officially met, when we'd traveled these roads but things had gone very wrong.

I allowed him to continue leading me toward the theater. Competing perfumes hung in the air over the line of theatergoers we joined that bordered the building. Street scalpers hid in the shadows behind the Colonial, trying to sell their tickets. I squeezed my love’s hand and leaned into him, relishing the freedom to do so in public, away from the disapproving eyes of our town. He wrapped his arms around me and nuzzled my neck.

I noticed a woman of about thirty in a sagging gray dress and coat, wringing her hands and pacing in what looked like indecision. She stood near a scalper and flicked her gaze between the theater and the man before finally approaching him and of¬fering him something from her threadbare clutch. He looked her up and down and rolled his eyes, shaking his head. I could see only the back of her, her unwashed hair in a flimsy bun, and the soles of her shoes so scuffed and worn, I imagined she could feel the chill of the ground reaching through them.

The scalper shooed her away, and when she turned toward me, she nearly broke my heart. She was crying-crying because she couldn't go in to see a show.

"Laura, why are you so troubled?"

The woman removed a crumpled handkerchief from her purse and wiped her nose.

"She doesn't have enough money to go in," I said, "and she

looks as if her life depends upon it."

He followed my gaze and saw her. His eyebrows knitted together.

"Do you have any cash?" I asked. "I have two dollars. The

tickets are five, though who knows how much he's charging for them?"

He hesitated a moment, but when he saw the look in my eyes, he pulled a five from his wallet and said, "Let's give her a night like we've given ourselves."

He walked over to the man and bought the ticket, and brought it back to me. "You give it to her. You saw her. And I don't want her to think I'm some kind of chisel."

She had started to walk away, so I hurried after her. “Ma’a.”

She turned, and looked with curiosity over my headband and dress peeking through my open coat. I could see her wondering what a ritzy gal like me wanted with the likes of her. I nearly told her that I was usually dressed as plainly as she, but I didn’t want to insult her.

"I have an extra ticket, and noticed that you wanted to go in;' I said. "Please take it."

She looked to the left and right and then back at me with a troubled expression, as if she thought I was trying to frame her. This was a woman unused to kindness.

"Please," I said, smiling to reassure her. "The doors are open¬ing. We don't want to miss any of the show."

She hesitated a moment, and then took the ticket. "Thank you. May I give you what I have?" She held out a dollar bill.

"No," I said.

"Laura," he called.

"Enjoy," I said, and hurried to him. When I looked back at the woman, I could see her eyes glistening in the marquee lights.

As white spotlights rolled around the theater, the music of the fifty-piece orchestra began with the brassy majesty of a Hol¬lywood production. I clenched my love's hand, dizzy with excite¬ment and awe. The heavy red velvet curtain rose, revealing a long, curving staircase in front of a shimmering silver curtain. Three chandeliers lifted, and lights embedded in the arches over the fixtures and woven through the silver curtain twinkled in time to the music.

The procession of the famous Ziegfeld girls began down the stairs, women of extraordinary beauty and grace parading like swans in white-feathered headpieces and sequined bodysuits. I was astonished to see their long, bare legs, and covered my mouth while meeting my date's gaze. He smiled and squeezed me close to him before he turned back to face the stage.

They began singing the opening number, while a seemingly endless parade of male dancers in front from either side, pairing up with the women as they reached the bottom of the staircase, and leading them to the four corners of the stage. I could barely stand to move my eyes off the performers, but I wanted to take in the audience around me. I scanned the boxes and rows, and found the woman from outside who almost hadn't made the show. She wore a look of ecstasy that moved me.

I returned my focus to the stage, not moving for the rest of the production. From birds to angels, gods and goddesses, I was transfixed by the transformations of the dancers. As the finale approached, Ruth St. Denis danced "The Gold and Black Saree" in a costume tinkling with gold charms and lined in fringe. Watching the way the lights caught the fabric as it clung to and flung away from her body in response to the movements, seeing this American girl transformed into an Indian woman, noting the near hypnosis of the audience, I knew that I wanted be a part of this world. This symphony of sound, light, fabric, and motion aroused a deep longing inside me.

When the show ended with a crescendo, the audience held its collective breath for a long moment, and finally erupted into an ovation. I gazed around at the eager, happy faces and spotted the woman from earlier. She appeared relaxed, exuberant, lit from within. I caught her eye and her smile warmed me. No matter what the critics said about the bare skin, exorbitant production costs, and provocative dances, the show had transformed her, as it had me, and I was glad to have seen it.

Silence filled the car on the drive home. We traveled along dark winding roads, watching the shiver of the breeze through the shadows of budding branches, feeling the melan¬choly of reality again burdening us. I removed my headband and ran my fingers over the silken feathers, wondering if I'd ever again get to wear such a beautiful costume. I realized it was the and me there on frequent weekend hikes, but we would never have attempted such a dangerous climb in the dark. Recklessness still pumped through my body, and I wanted some truth to my excursion so I wouldn't betray myself to my father, and especially to Marie.

"Are you sure?" he said. "You're not too tired?"

I was tired-to my bones-but I couldn't stand the thought of the night ending and of no longer being with him, and having to pretend we didn't love each other.

"I'm sure."

The light from the moon did little to illuminate the deep shadows in the woods. I removed my high heels and slipped on loafers while keeping on the dress. The car crunched to a stop on the gravel, and we got out and started off on the path to the falls. A false spring had tricked us with early budding, until a cold snap sent us reeling back to winter. Frost encased the trees. My teeth chattered, but I stormed ahead, feeling the energy from earlier reassert itself

"Laura, wait!" he called.

I lunged back and grabbed his hand, pulling him behind me on the path, feeling the wind in my hair, allowing a laugh to rise in my throat. I looked back at him, and his smile had returned.

The forest closed in over us, and it wasn't long before the

rushing of the falls grew. He struggled to keep up with me as I ran forward. I slid to a stop in the clearing before the magnificent waterfall as a great slab of ice plummeted over the edge above us and crashed into the pools below. Frozen chunks sat like puzzle pieces on the banks, dislodged and crowded, bobbing in the riv¬ er's thaw.

I strained to hear the sad ghosts' cries, but heard only the falls, and because people had died by slipping on the rocks or diving into the shallows, many thought this place held a curse.

I felt no curse that night. I felt only my lover's arms around

me as I fell into him. He grabbed my waist and pulled me close. Our passion, left smoldering by months of stealth and guilt, had finally ignited from our excursion of drinking, adventure, and abandon. I threw my arms around his neck and gave him my love without reserve. No caution or wariness held me back now. No one was around to judge me, and at that moment, I didn't care for the opinion of another soul in the world. I only knew that this night was a gift we had agreed to give to each other, and by God, we gave it-the fullest expression of our love. We joined ourselves forever in ways we hadn't taken time to consider or weigh. We knew only that we had to consummate our love, no matter what the cost.

VINCENT

Our guests' train arrives late, so we are already tight when they come. My husband, Eugen, holds up a torch he's made of hickory, parading the party up the walk and through the sleet. I carry the gin outside and make each of them take a healthy swig from the bottle before gaining entrance.

Elaine runs her hands up the sides of my costume, grazing my breasts before pulling me into her. She suddenly pushes away and says with fierceness, "How I've missed you.”

I do not embrace her back, but instead, give her my cruelest smile. "Tonight, I am an houri, so I'm for the men. Not you."

She pouts, while Floyd, one of my old lovers, pushes around her and lifts me off the ground. I wrap my legs around him as he pretends to ravage my neck. I laugh and allow him to carry me into the house and to the parlor, where he drops me on the settee, and I drop the empty bottle of gin on the rug. He kisses me full on the mouth, and I feel him stir through the thin fabric of my dress.

"I must stay pure," I say, "if I'm to escort you to paradise:' He laughs with wickedness as the poet Elinor Wylie pulls him off me and exchanges her body for his between my legs. She nuzzles me and I feel myselfstir.

"Surely you'll make an exception for me," she whispers.

I look into her eyes from inches away. I want to tell her that I'll always make an exception for her, but my demon returns. "Time shall tell:'

Her face hardens and she stands, allowing me up from the couch. I adjust my headdress and climb onto the sofa so I can see all of them. The rest of the group comes singing and tumbling into the room, and once they are in, the small crowd gazes up at me. I know I am impressive in my costume, and I can feel the desire humming in the room as so many of my lovers, current and past, male and female, watch me, wanting to possess me.

Using the flaming bundle ofhickory in a daring and danger¬ ous fashion, Eugen, dressed as the Maharaja, lights sticks of in¬ cense we brought back from our Oriental travels, and then tosses the bundle into the fireplace. While my guests warm themselves, I jump down from the settee, approach my old lover Margot, and slip my arm through hers.

"Come," I say. "Let us fetch the costumes. Dressing up allows inhibitions to fall down.”

Margot smiles at me with downcast eyes, and I see a blush creeping up her neck. I reach up to stroke her skin with the back of my right hand, and feel Elinor's gaze fixed on us. I speak just loud enough for Elinor to hear.


"How can I forget?" says Margot.

"Why would you want to?" I reply. I look sideways at Elinor and she turns away. Margot and I giggle as we run up the stairs to the trunks of Chinese trousers, Turkish silks, sarongs and slippers, and carry them back down as an offering to the party. My lovers remove their clothing and dance around the fire like devils, telling stories, acting parts, making love and mayhem, and rising to the most delightful level of intoxication, and when the night and our tightness begin to press on us with their weight, Floyd talks of the good old days in Greenwich Village when the war had ended, and we performed plays, and were poor and young and free.

''I'll never forget the day we walked into Vincent's apart¬ment," says Floyd, "and she and her sister Norma sat like two old ladies sewing while the most magnificent swearwords tumbled from their mouths from around the sides of the cigarettes they smoked."

"I had to teach her to curse out loud, and smoke, and walk around without a corset;' I say. "It took two days of nonstop de¬bauchery to break her. I was positively ill."

"Such a family," says Margot. "In Paris, Vinny's mother would sit in the corner- a true old lady, smoking and swearing¬ and watch us drink and fall all over one another without judgment."

"I love my dear mother," I say, "and it's been too long since

I've seen her. Uge, we must visit her soon."

"Yes, love," says Eugen. "We shall as soon as the roads clear." "Now we're so damned conventional;' I say, killing the last of my gin and my good spirits. 'Tm thirty-six years old. One day bleeds into the next. We are alone up here at Steepletop. Utterly:'

The group protests his leaving, and Elinor pulls Eugen to her. "No, don't make this night end."

He kisses her on the lips, and she caresses his face.

"It has ended for me," he says, "but you all keep it alive. Don't let the old Maharajah spoil your fun:'

He uncoils himself from Elinor's arms and stumbles up the

stairs, leaving a subdued group in his wake. I am suddenly over¬ come with guilt for how long it has been since I've seen or writ¬ ten to my mother or my sisters. Our Greenwich Village and Paris remembrances have depressed me and make me long for that time again. The stark winter weather that refuses to leave us in our isolated mountain estate has seeped into me for so long that I don't know if I will ever again bloom.

And I am drunk-dreadfully inebriated and spewing non¬ sense and musings on the decline of man and my loss of hope in civilization since the execution of those Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti, framed for murders they did not commit.

The cry of a bobcat in the distance silences me, and I feel the

terrible thrill of dangers lurking outside our doors, and inside too. The eat's cry sounds savage and predatory, and I wonder what she'll kill for herself tonight.

Elinor reaches for me with her elegant fingers and I slap them away and stand, caring not that I've offended her at every turn this evening, from my rejection of her physical advances, to my poetic arguments, to now. Why do I do this to her, when I would like nothing more than to take her upstairs with me? I don't know what evil chills my heart, but I know I have to go before I further poison the room.

As I am about to leave, I catch the eye of the ebony bust of

Sappho in the corner, that ancient love poet whose black gaze reflects the light of the fire, and I feel a rekindling. My enchanting power has been stoked, reminded of itself in the company of these old lovers from Vassar, where fifteen years ago my power first pulsed within me. I inhale the energy to feed the dry well of words and love and beauty inside me, and remember that it is fresh, savage love that gives me power. I meet the gaze of the marble bust across the room, and implore her to return my strength after this bitter winter so I may complete this poetry collection whose construction continues to elude me. I'm nearly frantic to know if she'll grant my wish-if she'll lay a new love at my feet and allow me to burst forth again and reclaim the power that I am born to possess.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Fallen Beauty

“Robuck's winning mix of imaginative storytelling and historical research makes for a gripping tale. Fallen Beauty is a must-read for fans of the fascinating poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.”—J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times bestselling author of Maine

“Erika Robuck brings the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay to life in all her beauty and insatiability. This is an electrifying read, one that crackles with passion on every page. The book reads like poetry.”—Alyson Richman, national bestselling author of The Lost Wife

“This finely tuned, lyrical novel is Robuck's strongest work to date, and destined to become an American classic.”—Simon Van Booy, award-winning author of The Illusion of Separateness

Praise for Call Me Zelda

“This gem of a novel spins a different, touching story.…You will love it, as I absolutely did.”—Tatiana de Rosnay, New York Times Bestselling Author of Sarah’s Key

“Richly imagined…an unsettling yet tender portrayal of two women inextricably bound by hope and tragedy.”—Beth Hoffman, New York Times Bestselling Author of Looking for You

“Haunting and beautifully atmospheric…brilliantly brings Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to life in all their doomed beauty, with compelling and unforgettable results.”—Alex George, Author of A Good American

Praise for Hemingway’s Girl

“You’ll love this robust, tender story of love, grief, and survival on Key West in the 1930s…addictive.”—Jenna Blum, New York Times Bestselling Author of Those Who Save Us

“Readers will delight in the complex relationships and vivid setting.”—Publishers Weekly

“Evokes a setting of the greatest fascination...This is assured and richly enjoyable storytelling.”—Margaret Leroy, Author of The Soldier’s Wife

"Robuck's breathtaking alchemy is to put us inside the world of Hemingway and his wife Pauline, and add a bold young woman to the mix with a story uniquely her own. Dazzlingly written and impossibly moving, this novel is a supernova."—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times Bestselling Author of Pictures of You

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Upstate New York, 1928. Laura Kelley and the man she loves sneak away from their judgmental town to attend a performance of the scandalous Ziegfeld Follies. But the dark consequences of their night of daring and delight reach far into the future.…

That same evening, Bohemian poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and her indulgent husband hold a wild party in their remote mountain estate, hoping to inspire her muse. Millay declares her wish for a new lover who will take her to unparalleled heights of passion and poetry, but for the first time, the man who responds will not bend completely to her will.…

Two years later, Laura, an unwed seamstress struggling to support her daughter, and Millay, a woman fighting the passage of time, work together secretly to create costumes for Millay’s next grand tour. As their complex, often uneasy friendship develops amid growing local condemnation, each woman is forced to confront what it means to be a fallen woman…and to decide for herself what price she is willing to pay to live a full life.


ABOUT ERIKA ROBUCK

Erika Robuck is a contributor to the popular fiction blog Writer Unboxed, and she maintains her own blog, Muse. She is a member of the Hemingway Society, the Millay Society and the Historical Novel Society, and she lives in the Chesapeake Bay area with her husband and three sons. She is the author of Receive Me Falling and Hemingway’s Girl.


A CONVERSATION WITH ERIKA ROBUCK

What inspired you to make Edna St. Vincent Millay the subject of your third literary-themed novel?

My studies of the Fitzgeralds for my novel Call Me Zelda led me to Millay. Two of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Princeton friends, Edmund "Bunny" Wilson and John Peale Bishop, worshipped Millay, and their adoration of her reminded me of my interest in her poetry, which I first read in college. Wilson's moving obituary for Millay in his essay collection Shores of Light inspired me to learn more about the poet who had such an "intoxicating effect on people." It didn't take long for Millay to cast her spell on me.

A poet, a seamstress, and a sculptor-there's something poetic about that combination. How did you come up with it?

My visit to Millay's home Steepletop, a seven-hundred-acre estate in the Berkshires, inspired the characters in my story. When I first saw photographs of the pastoral place, I imagined what an ideal retreat it must have been for Millay, where she could compose her poetry in peace. On my visit, however, I realized this was not necessarily so.

First, Steepletop is very remote. Traveling the winding mountain roads bordered with forests reminded me of the opening of Stephen King's The Shining. Once I arrived, I was struck by two things: First, it was almost blindingly bright, and, second, the terrible buzzing of bees could be heard everywhere. When I entered the house, the blank-eyed gaze of the large black bust of Sappho in Millay's parlor made me uncomfortable, and I was further disturbed to stand in the foyer at the bottom of the staircase, where Millay had fallen to her death.

When I walked upstairs into Millay's rooms, I was interested to see elaborate robes hanging in her bathroom, and to learn about her dramatic reading tour wardrobes. I was reminded of the poetry collection for which she won the Pulitzer, The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, about an impoverished mother who magically weaves her son's fancy clothing on a harp until she dies.

All of these research ingredients blended in my imagination to form and connect my poet, seamstress, and sculptor.

Millay's desire to plumb the heights and depths that life could offer, all in service to her poetry, makes her a fascinating figure. Why do you think we are drawn to her, and people like her? Do we secretly wish we had the courage to go where she dares to go? And as a writer yourself, how do you reconcile the need to feed your creative muse while remaining a responsible, "highly functioning" grown-up?

Women like Millay, who live so fiercely on the edge of what mainstream society might consider scandalous, are captivating in any time period. What I found most interesting about Millay and her husband was their belief that her experiences in life, love, lust, and pain were part of her vocation, and, therefore, worthy of being taken as far as she was willing to go. I'm sure we all have secret thoughts and fantasies that we either let loose or rein in, depending on how impulsive we are, how ingrained our moral beliefs are, or any number of other factors, but those who flout convention make fascinating characters.

So far my imagination has been able to supply all of my edgy material, much to my husband's relief.

In the last few months, I've comes across several mentions of Millay. Caroline Kennedy has quoted Millay's "First Fig" in interviews and suspense writer Sophie Hannah has called Millay one of her five favorite writers. Are we poised for a Millay renaissance?

I'm intrigued by the idea of Millay's second renaissance, since it was her poem "Renascence," selected for an annual poetry anthology when she was just twenty years old, that initially made her a celebrity.

In Millay's own time, she sold out thousand-seat auditoriums on reading tours. Her adoring fans sent her endless correspondence about her poetry. Her collections were continuously being reprinted, and she was one of the first women to win the Pulitzer Prize. At her peak, Millay's writings made her approximately thirty thousand dollars a year, which would be nearly half a million dollars in the present day. Our time is rich with captivating women artists, musicians, and writers, and Millay is worthy to stand with the best of them.

I believe our culture is poised not only for a Millay renaissance, but also for a poetry renaissance. As our attention span constricts in response to the gadgets we use, poetry could supply a new consciousness with deep meaning in short form.

Through the character of Laura Kelley, Fallen Beauty explores what it meant to be a "fallen woman" in the 1930s, but in some ways, Edna St. Vincent Millay might also be considered a fallen woman. Would you share some of what you hoped to convey in this regard?

I wanted to show how making judgments about people injects poison into communities, how frequently all is not what it seems, and how those who outspokenly oppose something that they see as corrosive are often battling aspects of the very behavior they denounce.

Through the women in particular in Fallen Beauty, I wanted to explore how we seek fulfillment, what it means to be an "ideal" woman (if there is such a thing), how our desires can either help to build us up or destroy us, and how we can remake our lives after we fall.

You mentioned once that car accidents were a hallmark of novels set in the twenties and thirties, which came as a surprise to me. Can you explain?

The use of the automobile accident, or the vehicle as a symbol of violence for dramatic effect, is typical of works set in the twenties and thirties, when driving became more prevalent and cars were associated with certain freedoms. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses a car accident in This Side of Paradise and at the climax of The Great Gatsby. In Appointment at Samarra by John O'Hara, the car becomes a device for suicide. In 1936, Millay was in a car accident with Eugen in the driver's seat, in which she was flung out of the vehicle and into a ravine. Afterward, she suffered permanent problems with her back, which led her to abuse prescription drugs. A car accident seemed a fitting device for illustrating the trouble that becomes the catalyst for events in Fallen Beauty.

Edna St. Vincent Millay seems to have been especially close to her mother. Can you tell us more about Edna's upbringing and family dynamics? Were her two sisters at all like her? And does she have any descendants through her sisters?

After her scandalous divorce from her husband in 1900 for gambling, Cora Millay raised her three daughters alone, often leaving the girls for long periods to work as a practical nurse. Cora insisted on the education and betterment of her girls in spite of their poverty, and she was their greatest champion and supporter. They worshipped her, and Vincent was said to enjoy her times of illness because Cora would stay home to take care of her.

Vincent's sisters, Norma and Kathleen, were artists in their own rights. Norma was an actress in the theater and Kathleen was a writer, though she existed in Vincent's shadow. Neither had any children.

Biographers have noted the extreme closeness of the women, saying that they often lived and socialized together, wrote poetry for one another, and crafted strange, almost adoring letters to one another. I found Vincent's "love letters" to her mother both charming and unsettling.

The three novels we've worked on together all explore the idea of redemption in one way or another. Is that a deliberate choice, or a theme that cropped up without your being aware of it?

I believe it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said that writers have only one story to tell, so I suppose redemption is my story. My mission with Ernest Hemingway, Zelda Fitzgerald, and now Edna St. Vincent Millay is to show their humanity through their fascinating lives in order to honor them and remind readers of their work. I like to read novels that offer redemption in spite of hardship, so it's only natural that I employ similar themes in my own fiction.

You've now explored in your novels Ernest Hemingway, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Edna St. Vincent Millay-all of whom were contemporaries of one another. From your current perspective, are there any commonalities you see in their lives and work, or any conclusions we can draw-however tentatively-about their relevance for our own time?

Commonalities I've discovered are the way they used real people in their fiction, often without regard for the feelings of those being exploited, though all three approached this differently. Hemingway fictionalized his experiences after he'd had them. Zelda wrote autobiographically, often exposing her own personality flaws and insecurities. Millay was in love with love more than she was with the people who received her brand of love, and she used those heightened emotions to inspire her poetry. In each instance, the writings seem corrosive to those involved, though the work is often brilliant.

As a writer, I'm interested in understanding the creative mind, and just what is necessary to make great art. I find that question relevant to any time. Stories are what help us make sense of and empathize with one another. Perhaps by studying the lives of others, we can learn from their mistakes. Millay often wrote about nature and the cycle of the seasons in her poetry, and she used nature's lessons to comfort and instruct herself in love. History has cycles, and examining the past helps us to anticipate the future.

Are you ready to share the subject of your next novel?

The subject of my next novel is a very private gentleman from a long time ago who often felt isolated in spite of being surrounded by his loving family and accomplished contemporaries. I will not yet reveal his name, but I will say that through him, I will explore loneliness and, most certainly, redemption.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • What was your overall reaction to reading Fallen Beauty?
  • How are both Edna St. Vincent Millay and Laura Kelley "fallen women"? How does each rebuild her life after her fall?
  • Discuss the changing dynamics between Laura and Edna over the course of the novel. How do they hurt and help each other? By the end, how would you define their relationship?
  • Discuss the many kinds of isolation in the novel. How much of it is self-imposed, and why do some characters choose isolation? How does community act to reinforce or counteract that isolation?
  • Laura is keeping her lover's identity secret. Discuss the secrets that other people in town are keeping. Do Edna and Eugen keep any secrets?
  • Compare Laura's relationship with her unidentified lover and Edna's relationship with George Dillon.
  • What role does the statue of the Virgin play in the novel? Why do you think Erika Robuck included it?
  • Erika Robuck has said that Fallen Beauty is based on themes from Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. What do you think she means?
  • Talk about the various mothers in the book, and what we know about the choices they made. What kind of mother might Edna have made? What direction might Laura's life have taken if she wasn't a mother? Based on what the novel reveals about Cora, how do you think she helped shape Edna's life?
  • Do you think, like Edna, that artists should seek to live fully in order to have profound experiences to inspire their art? What price might an artist pay in doing so? What price does Millay pay? What about Laura?
  • Attitudes about out-of-wedlock births have changed dramatically since the 1930s when this novel takes place. Do you have stories to share, perhaps from your own family, about women whose lives were affected by a pregnancy outside of marriage? How different is your own attitude to those held in the thirties?
  • At the end of the novel, Edna calls Laura a "cruel beauty." What do you think she means? How is Edna herself a cruel beauty?
  • What do you think you'll remember about this novel long after you finish reading it
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