- Hardcover: 240 pages
- Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (March 7, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0312343124
- ISBN-13: 978-0312343125
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,250,043 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What Caroline Knew: A Novel 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Cultural critic for the New York Times, James hangs her inert second novel (after Glorie) on an erotic painting and its repercussions for the reputations of both subject and artist. Caroline Stephens is a beautiful blue blood in Jazz Age New York who becomes a patron of young artists to allay the boredom of her respectable but sleepy marriage and the stuffiness of her old-moneyed social world. Sensuality and propriety, bohemia and convention war within her—but respectability ultimately rules. She promotes a handsome painter, Nick Leone, and is incensed at his betrayal when he reveals a "pornographic" nude of her at his opening exhibition in 1927. A scandal erupts; she insists she never posed for the painting; and she and her family set out to ruin Nick. James frames the story from the viewpoint of Caroline's great-nephew, Philip, at the time of the painting's 2002 exhibition at the Met, but the bulk of the novel consists of Caroline's first-person story as told to Philip. This structure—and several slowly doled out revelations about the real circumstances of Nick and Caroline's relationship—makes for little narrative tension. Add Caroline's implausible callousness as things get worse for Nick, and the result is a muddled read. (Mar.)
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Is anything more delicious than a high-society scandal engagingly presented? James' novel suggests nothing is, as art patron Caroline Stephens, daughter of Old New York Society and wife of conservative businessman Harrison Stephens, "plays at being a Medici" in 1927 and wheedles "Harry" into bankrolling a high-profile gallery opening of paintings by Nick Leone. Intimations of trouble come when Harry helps her on with her wrap and remarks, "Is that a dress or a slip?" and a friend, noting the low cut of Caroline's frock, adds, "I must congratulate you on your extremely straight spine." Then Leone unveils a nude portrait of her, later described by newspapers as "lewd" and "pornographic," depicting her "tickling her private parts." She swoons, and scandal envelops her and the painting, which disappears. Flash forward to 2002, when the past is exhumed: the elderly Caroline recalls her flaming youth, which also included making out with the exciting Spencer in an upstairs bedroom while her and Harry's engagement party was in full swing. Love that high society! Whitney Scott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Unfortunately, Ms. James has a tin ear for history. The New York society she portrays has a philistine ignorance of modern art. But the modern art movement was supported by the wealthiest people in New York society. It would never have gotten off the ground without people named Dodge, Whitney, Vanderbilt and Guggenheim and the lesser lights of society scrambled to keep up. Ms. James is also a lazy writer: there are no "walk ons" of real people, which tests the mettle of a writer of historical fiction. Worse, she just plunks her characters into a milieu she calls the 1920s without bothering to research the era. When she talks about artists her character supports, we get one or two famous names and then just something generic along the lines of "and many others." If she was too lazy to spend an hour in the library, she could have just done what F. Scott Fitzgerald did and make up a bunch of names. Similarly, there is no attention to the way people thought, how they lived or even just of the products they used. The book consists of 21st Century Yuppies in fancy dress.
Like many people who have spent too long at The New York Times, her workmanlike prose is as flat as three day old champagne. The Grey Lady's Style Book is death to distinguished letters and Ms. James did not escape the curse.