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For fans of Mary Beth Keane and Jennifer Egan, this powerful, moving multigenerational saga from National Book Award finalist Martha McPhee—ten years in the making—explores one family’s story against the sweep of 20th century American history.
Drawn from the author’s own family history, An Elegant Woman is a story of discovery and reinvention, following four generations of women in one American family. As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the narrative shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the winter cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both of their lives.
A profound meditation on memory, history, and legacy, An Elegant Woman follows one woman over the course of the 20th century, taking the reader from a drought-stricken farm in Montana to a yellow Victorian in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small town Ohio to a family reunion at a sweltering New Jersey pig roast. Framed by Isadora’s efforts to retell her grandmother’s journey—and understand her own—the novel is an evocative exploration of the stories we tell ourselves, and what we leave out.
About the Author
Martha McPhee is the author of the novels An Elegant Woman, Bright Angel Time, Gorgeous Lies, L’America, and Dear Money. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Gorgeous Lies was a finalist for the National Book Award. She teaches fiction at Hofstra University and lives in New York City.
"Martha McPhee’s novel An Elegant Woman explores the archetypally American virtue of self-invention. To its redoubtable, shape-shifting matriarch, Thelma, the past exists to be molded and falsified in the pursuit of an ideal...This is a portrait of self-creation in the vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but without his disenchantment."
—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
"Isadora, the narrator of Martha McPhee’s fifth novel, An Elegant Woman, is a writer with deep curiosity about her family history. Fortunately, her grandmother — known, among other monikers, as Tommy, Katherine and Grammy — is a teller of endless tales, dashed here and there with truth...The novel’s finest pages are the ones set in Montana, where the sisters grow up against the backdrop of the American West...The writing is at its best in...tense moments, when no amount of name-changing can afford the characters any escape."
—Jackie Thomas Kennedy, The Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Calling her book An Elegant Woman, in which family lore conveys as much made-up grandeur as fact, is both fitting and ironic. For the elegant woman in question...embodies incessant self-invention...Throughout, the writing remains sharp, precise, and, yes, elegant...McPhee’s narrative swings back and forth in time, creating wide-angled panoramas followed by intimate closeups."
—Dan Cryer, The Boston Globe
"[McPhee's] new novel, An Elegant Woman, expands this distinctly American drive across the span of a century and the breadth of the country. McPhee has earned this sweep: Over five novels she has developed such a sophisticated grasp of social-climbing characters that she’s able to track three generations with an easy grace many historical novels lack."
—Los Angeles Times
"Martha McPhee is less interested in revealing family secrets than in probing the way insistently told lies can become a kind of truth. Partly inspired by McPhee’s grandmother’s own stories, An Elegant Woman... charts the course of a hardscrabble youth in the raw American West that’s deftly camouflaged by a prosperous, sophisticated Eastern adulthood."
—New York Times Book Review
"Flashes of gleaming prose illuminate Martha McPhee’s novel, which is rooted in her own family history and offers much insight."
—Christian Science Monitor
"This novel by National Book Award finalist and Hofstra University English professor McPhee is proof positive of the importance of family stories being passed on from generation to generation. The author found inspiration in her grandmother's recollections of her ancestors and of growing up out West for this tale of two sisters whose lives take wildly divergent paths following an act of betrayal."
"Spanning four generations of women through the 20th century, Martha McPhee’s fifth novel is a rich exploration of legacy and memory. It untangles the sacred myths of an American family, as a woman pieces together the story of her extraordinary — and highly elegant — grandmother."
"The new novel by Martha McPhee—daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Princeton professor John McPhee—is a heart-warming family saga that follows four generations of women. Drawing from her own family history, McPhee takes readers on a journey across the country in this meditation on memory, history and legacy."
—Jacqueline Mroz, New Jersey Monthly
"Calling her book An Elegant Woman, in which family lore conveys as much made-up grandeur as fact, is both fitting and ironic. For the elegant woman in question...embodies incessant self-invention...Throughout, the writing remains sharp, precise, and, yes, elegant...McPhee’s narrative swings back and forth in time, creating wide-angled panoramas followed by intimate closeups.”
“A richly animated work, McPhee’s enthralling new novel glides through American history, from early-twentieth-century Billings, Montana, to a Prohibition-era Adirondacks lakeside retreat and beyond, alongside fabulous characters...McPhee elevates the generational saga into a dazzling, artfully detailed presentation of self-determination.”
—Booklist, starred review
“A richly textured family portrait."
“McPhee’s ambitious tale...captivates."
"Martha McPhee has outdone herself with this irresistibly lively, worldly-wise, wonderfully imagined novel, wherein the American art of self-invention is explored with an clear eye to the price it exacts. All the characters are richly realized—none more so than the narrator, who regards her family myths with amused skepticism, tenderness and a consistently engaging intelligence."
—Phillip Lopate, author of A Mother's Tale and Two Marriages