Friday, February 21, 2014

Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck

[. . . ] like it or not, this town was a part of me.  I could feel its dust on my feet, its rivers like blood in my veins, its street patterns etched on my skin; to leave would mean amputating a part of myself.

~ from Advance Reader Copy of Fallen Beauty (some changes may have been made to the final print version)

Two up-front warnings: 

1.  It's 2:00 in the morning. I diddled around all day when I knew I should have been finishing this book to review it because . . . 
2.  The timing was wrong.  But, I loved where Erika Robuck took the story, in the end. I just had a terrible time getting into Fallen Beauty.

Fallen Beauty follows Erika Robuck's pattern: the fictional biography of a historical character told via the placement of an entirely fictional character whose life intersects with that of the real-life character, in this case poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and fictional seamstress Laura Kelley.

The year is 1928. Laura is 19 when she falls in love. In the course of a single night of passion, she becomes pregnant. But, the man she loves is not available. Before her child arrives, tragedy strikes, leaving the family business on shaky ground.

Laura chooses to keep baby Grace and becomes a pariah in her small community. It is difficult enough to survive as a seamstress after the stock market crash. With few people willing to cross the threshold of her shop, Laura is barely surviving when Edna St. Vincent Millay (who chose to go by the name "Vincent") comes into the picture.

Vincent is married but her marriage to Eugen is open and she is bisexual. She's known for her wild parties and love life as much as her poetry in the town near her mountain home.  Vincent is drawn to Laura after hearing Eugen's description of her and wants Laura in her life. But, she also desires to help Laura after realizing the hardship Laura endures, both as an outcast and a single mother.

There's much more to the story than I can or should go into, but . . . gypsies, sister, kind sculptor, nasty village woman, one-night stand between Millay and a villager that complicates things . . . those are some of the other elements.  

What I loved about Fallen Beauty:

Exceptional characterization, to the point that "Vincent" initially made my skin crawl, believable dialogue, skillful narrative and an uplifting ending are some of the things I loved about Fallen Beauty. Laura is a fascinating character. She battles grief and guilt yet she's willing to place herself in an untenable position because she is also a loving person.  She is strong enough to remain true to herself, even while filled with self-doubt.  By the end of the book, I admired her deeply.  Edna St. Vincent Millay struck me as bizarre, at first.  But, the author managed to show her humanity at the same time she revealed her dangerous weaknesses (which eventually led to her death), the impact of her upbringing on her behavior and her mad genius.  When Robuck spoke from Vincent's point of view, I felt a little like I'd jumped on the crazy train but it was the fact that Millay's wildly creative viewpoint was believable that made it so uncomfortable.

What I disliked about Fallen Beauty:

That skin-crawling distaste for Edna St. Vincent Millay's wild life and her unique point of view really put me off to the point that I considered not finishing Fallen Beauty.  Fortunately, Tammy (whose review I'll link up to, below) convinced me that I would not regret finishing. She gave it 5 stars and it was thanks to her encouragement that I continued reading. While it took me nearly a week to read the book, I truly think that can be chalked up at least partially to poor timing because I did love the writing; it's both fluid and self-assured.

And yet I had enough trouble dissociating myself from the discomfort of reading the portions told from Millay's viewpoint that I kept dragging my feet and occasionally zoning out. Fallen Beauty is, for me, a book that I appreciate more upon reflection than I managed while I was reading it. Weird but true.

Other thoughts:

I didn't mind the secret of Laura's unknown lover being dangled throughout most of the book, even though some small part of me was thinking of the secret as a literary device. So what, another small part of me said. I rather like the not knowing because it opens up the option to gleefully theorize. 

RecommendedFallen Beauty is at once a fictional story of love and loss, pain and redemption and a glimpse into the life of a famous poet, masterfully told. Between my distaste for Edna St. Vincent Millay's lifestyle and the wrong mood, I can't say I fell in love with Fallen Beauty; my attention strayed. And, yet, after finishing I have that, "Oh, I see what she did," sensation that Tammy described.  I get it, now; Tammy was right. I am quite impressed with Erika Robuck's storytelling skill.  

My thanks to TLC Book Tours and NAL for the review copy of Fallen Beauty.  Thanks, also, to Tammy for convincing me not to give up.

©2014 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery  or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. That's the disadvantage of book tours... Sometimes you read books at the wrong time because you have to. I am glad you liked this one in the end, though!

    1. Yes, exactly. Now and then, I give up on book tours completely because of that. I need and desire to read by my whims. It's fortunate that I got a nudge from Tammy. I'm not sure *anything* would have clicked, this week, to be honest. It was a fickle sort of week and I needed encouragement.

  2. I have timing issues with books a lot. I have a whole shelf on Goodreads dedicated to books I will try to return to later and read again. It's not that I dislike them, but that I am not in the right frame of mind from whatever is going on in my life or I am just so not in the mood to read a particular kind of book.

    I want to give Fallen Beauty a try. I have read a little about Edna St. Vincent Millay and she sounds intriguing. I've always said that if I lived in the 20s I would probably be a jazz-club going, speakeasy loving, flapper who wore dresses with dangling beads and with a glass of liquor in my hand. Anything to be the rebellious one. :D

    1. Me, too. I periodically stop accepting review books for that reason. I need to read what's calling to me. There are times I can go for a long stretch reading what's piled up but then suddenly I rebel and can't force myself through anything I'm not dying to read. It's frustrating but really just a sign that reading specifically to blog is not necessarily the right way to read, although it works for some people.

      Fallen Beauty is excellent. I tend to dislike anything with erotic undertones but after I got used to Millay's POV and her humanity started to show, I enjoyed the contrast between the two women - one responsible and sedate, the other wild and free to an extreme.

      Yes, I can see you as a flapper, Becca. LOL


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