The Luxe by Anna Godbersen

Did you know that mascara was invented by a man called Eugene Rimmel, founder of Maybelline Cosmetics? Apparently, he was the first to package the product in 1917. Before then, petroleum jelly, along with other mysterious and cakey substances, was used in 1872 as the basic foundation of what would later become mascara. You may think this is an odd way to begin a book review but, while reading The Luxe, I found myself compelled by curiosity to investigate the historical details peppered throughout this surprisingly entertaining novel.

It’s all in the details

At first, I had very little patience for the characters of this novel. Elizabeth and Diana Holland are exceptionally spoiled, bratty girls. The Luxe follows the upper crust of Manhattan’s elite social circles in late 19th century. However, once I got past the self-entitled rich girls and their inflated egos, the depth of research and historical details this novel demonstrated by Godbersen became sincerely educational. I learned about popular 19th century novelists, the geographical distinctions of New York City during this period, and the terminology of women’s fashion was endlessly entertaining. For example, Diana Holland is a voracious reader of novels, a favourite author being Amélie Rives. After some minor google searches, I located a few titles, photographs and drawings of Ms. Rives. She proved to be very eccentric, a unique figure of a poet and authoress.  I would be very curious to investigate her work further.

Mountains of fabric

In addition to intricate details describing Gramercy Park, the infamous Waldor -Astoria, and the Ladie’s Mile on Fifth Avenue, Godbersen’s endless, but beautiful description of clothing truly paints a picture of luxury, in true accordance with the title. Luscious reds, pinks, ivory and black silks adorn the beautiful girls of The Luxe, as they lounge around in their opulent wealth. Even more fascinating, Godbersen does not neglect the perspective of Elizabeth and Diana’s maids. Lina Broud is a fantastic character, whose instinct for self-preservation is uncanny, vengeful, but quite justified. Penelope Hayes, on the other hand, is a piece of work. She’s the epitome of a perfect villain, complete with her lapdog, temper tantrums and an endless parade of perfect wardrobe selections.

Fashion Plate 1869

When I first began The Luxe, I rolled my eyes at the decadence of Elizabeth’s life, not at all curious by the remaining novels in this series. However, when I completed the final chapter, I was immensely impressed by Godbersen’s ability to truly develop characters from immature, spoiled children to understanding women on the brink of maturity. Yes, they are rich and privileged, but thankfully, the Holland sisters eventually comprehend the complexity of real life and social responsibility. Most surprisingly, Henry Schoonmaker, initially a manipulative cad, actually becomes a likeable person, instead of a drunkard, a caricature, a transition I never thought possible.

At first glance, The Luxe is Gossip Girl with a historical twist. Once you scratch beyond the surface, though, Godbersen’s tenacity for century-specific dialogue and internal monologues are spot on. Turns of phrases, the language of centuries past, felt real and accurate, while still captivating her teen readers. The Luxe is no gimmick. And, for once, the absence of parents was perfectly appropriate to the story. Despite her fleeting scenes, however, Mrs. Holland propels the story forward and creates the much needed heartache to make Elizabeth, Diana, Henry, and Lina three-dimensional people worth caring about.

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2 thoughts on “The Luxe by Anna Godbersen

    • Believe me, I was surprised too. The first few chapters were painfully superficial, but as I continued reading, I was totally impressed by the dialogue because it has a distinct, 19th century feel. That’s a difficult atmosphere to capture. Then, as the characters began to mature beyond their petty inconveniences, I found myself becoming curious… The historical elements are an unusually entertaining, especially all the descriptions of New York at the turn of the century.

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