It was a time of opulence and magnificence. It was a bounty of places and persons carefully selected to prime young people of wealth and circumstance in ways of culture, history and language. It was the perfect place to come of age. Now mythologized in our consciousness and lavish beyond most of our collective comprehension, the Grand Tour is legendary in scope. From London to Paris to Vienna to Rome, those of circumstance were guided to experience the epoch of Europe’s delights. To guide these young impressionable minds was an educated “bear” who would lead the young people through their adventures while (hopefully) keeping them out of danger or trouble and, you know, regulated their penchant for drink, dance and debauchery. The Grand Tour is brilliantly woven as the backdrop of Lisa T. Bergren’s Glamorous Illusions: one of the most literary endeavours in the Christian market I have read this year.
Cora Diehl is comfortable with her farm life: the chores, the structure, the routine, her loving parents…. She could ask for little more than the comfort of her circumstance. That is, until she learns that she is the illegitimate daughter of the Copper King and her life changes forever. No longer the product of her Montana farming heritage, Cora must learn to bridge the gaping social divide and accept her new role as the daughter of one of the American elite. In order to give he a proper upbringing and to atone for years of neglect, Cora’s new father sends her on the Grand Tour with his other legitimate children. With her confidante Will, the bear and her dashing new French acquaintance, Pierre de Richelieu, Cora is spun in an intricate maze of masquerades and garden parties, cocktails, boating and high-stepping: a social and cultural whirl set against the beauty and poise of Europe.
This is an incredibly confident book: confident in its structure, in its usage of the Tour as a backdrop which takes on its own spinning characteristics and in its usage of shifting narrative points of view. Intrinsic details of life in the whirlwind of the Grand Tour as well as a sincere appreciation and understanding of the history of each landmark : from English country manners to Versaille are perfectly executed. A lot of in-depth research clearly went into the formation of this book. When Cora takes up with a dashingly enigmatic Frenchmen, Bergen doesn’t err in beating us to death with immediate translation: she allows the flow of the story and the dialogue to infer the meaning of each statement. To add to Bergren’s fortitude as a writer, she plays with narrative perspective: a point of view switch--- from Will to Cora --- hers in first person. This could have been disastrous; but Bergren does it well and it rounds out Cora’s experience and the reader’s impression of her. As our narrator, we are immediately attuned to Cora’s opinions and her experiences in a typically biased way; but Bergren takes a step further by guaranteeing that Cora’s likeability is not only personal expression, we get to see Cora and her adventures through other’s eyes and perspectives. Amazing clothing and culturally specific detail allow one to sink further into the believability of the novel and the slight romance that fringes the character’s deeper acquaintance is most welcome.
Not only is Cora a fish-out-of-water in the midst of cultural divide in Europe, she is immediately flabberghasted by the major rift between her farm life and the Kensington life of wealth and prosperity. While busily waltzing from monument to monument, in and out of gorgeous clothes and social faux pas, Cora must also learn to reconcile the betrayal of her heritage: once thought beloved and owned by her parents, the family secret that severed her existence plagues her on the other side of the world as she learns to tolerate her new siblings and encounter head-on the shame of being a child conceived out-of-wedlock in a time and society where this equaled to social disaster. “ Wallace Kensington made a way for me to come here…”, she says “… but he also made it impossible for me and my folks to ever return home ….to ever resume our former life”
The blessing of wealth and experience clashes greatly with the realization that once you leave a place and circumstance, you can never go back: if physically, at least not emotionally. Fortunately, going into her new excursion, Cora is blessed with a resolute character which allows her to take her new circumstances with a grain of salt, keep her wits about her and not immediately fall into the trappings of froth and flounce which could alter her inner goodness. She inappropriately interrupts a dinner with an outburst on behalf of union workers, she engages with the servants and gracefully accepts the rude dismissal of her presence ( upon recognition of her true parentage) from a family of great wealth and influence. Cora is a heroine to believe in. She is flawed; but willing. She is trying; but tried upon. She is the perfect balance of wonder and skepticism.
This is my first ( but not last ) Lisa T. Bergren book