It’s hard to feel sympathy for the ultra rich, but Amber Brock pulls it off in A Fine Imitation. Vera Bellington, to all outward appearances, has everything a woman could ever want. Her husband is a mover and shaker on the New York real estate scene. She lives in a beautiful penthouse and has never wanted for money. But the price she pays is being unloved and always behaving appropriately. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for Vera, the arrival of an artist in her building makes it impossible for her to be appropriate anymore.
Vera’s story is told in chapters that alternate between Vassar in 1913 and Manhattan in 1923. In each story line, someone comes into Vera’s life who challenges her dedication to always doing what society and her mother expect of her. In 1913, that person is Bea Stillman. Bea is loud and daring and not quite on the up and up, but Vera can relax around her. In 1923, it’s Emil Hallan, an artist who has been hired to paint a mural in the pool room of Vera’s building. He is also not quite on the up and up and something about him bothers Vera. Still, he seems to understand how desperately unhappy she is with her life.
In each storyline, Vera is given a choice. Does she buck society to seek happiness? Or does she choose material comfort and status instead? All her life, Vera has been oppressed by her mother and society’s rules. One might think it’s an easy choice, but Vera is completely unprepared for life without money and servants. At one point, she shows how little she knows about practical life when she reveals she doesn’t know how to turn on a stove. Her choice is no small thing. I felt for the poor (figuratively) woman. I really did.
A Fine Imitation, in addition to being a terrific character study, is highly atmospheric. I sank into Brock’s exposition of high society life in a claustrophobic apartment building in 1923. (The scenes set at Vassar are less well described, unfortunately.) I think this book will be a hit with readers who enjoyed Downton Abbey, if they don’t mind that the action is set on the American side of the Pond.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 3 May 2016.