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The Invitation

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Member Reviews

With thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Australia for providing me with a digital arc of The Invitation by Belinda Alexandra, all opinions expressed are my own.

The Invitation is set in Paris and New York during 1899/1900. Emma leaves behind her bohemian lifestyle as a writer and harpist in France, as well as her boyfriend of 5 years Claude to tutor her niece Isadora, helping with her debut and finding a husband. In return her wealthy estranged sister Caroline will pay off sets Emma incurred caring for their grandmother during her final days.

As always, this is a beautifully written, clearly very well researched novel which I have enjoyed reading. However, unlike previous novels by this author, I unfortunately found it quite drawn out, with not a lot happening. In saying that I still look forward to reading the author’s next book.

3.5/5 ⭐️
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Writer and harpist Emma Ducasse was raised by her grandmother in Paris. Her elder sister Caroline is married to American tycoon Oliver Hopper. While Caroline revels in a life of luxury, Emma struggles to make ends meet and is deeply worried about how she will repay her many debts. Caroline has never shown any affection towards her, but when she eventually discovers Emma’s plight she offers her an invitation to travel to New York. In exchange for payment of her debts, Emma must work to improve the prospects of a suitable marriage for Caroline’s daughter, Isadora, after her debut. Although reluctant to leave her lover Claude, Emma feels she has no choice but to accept the offer.

On the ship, Emma makes friends with an artist, Florence, who later introduces her to others helping poorer families at the mercy of the rich landlords like Hopper. Emma is conflicted. A friend warns her: “The more you associate with the fashionable crowd, the more alienated from your soul you will become…” and she also discovers that “here in New York society whether you liked or disliked a person had no meaning. Associations and social events were about power; gaining it or protecting it.”

Caroline’s vile schemes and manipulation are well-handled, and Emma is a likeable character, as is Isadora. The historical background research is thorough, but the excessive detail slows the pace and even risks smothering the true heart of this story. The closing chapters are more energetic as they move towards a rather predictable conclusion.

Readers who can never get enough description of clothes, interiors, balls, and the superficial doings of the idle rich in America’s Gilded Age are going to adore this book; others may wish its empathy hadn’t been swamped by quite so much bling.
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This is my first B Alexandra book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Set in Paris in  1899. Emma Lacasse  is the younger sister to Caroline, who have been estranged from each other for over 20 years after Caroline married a wealthy American and moved away.

Emma is intrigued when Caroline  invites Emma to meet with her on a visit to Paris and then invites her to come an live with them in the States and assist with Caroline's daughter's intro into Society, and then suitability in finding a husband for young Isadora.

Caroline lives in high society in New York and lives to excess and in ultra luxury, where nothing is too much for friends and family.  Though Caroline is not all she seems to be and Emma, after leaving her beloved Claude in Paris, wonders what will become of herself and poor Isadora, when Caroline being manipulative, tries to be matchmaker, but there is a sinister side to Caroline, that Emma is yet to see, which could bring all their world's crashing down.

A truly wonderful story.  Belinda Alexandra has a way of drawing you in and it really was a pleasure reading this book.  I look forward to reading many more from BA.
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I loved loved loved this book by Belinda Alexandra. She is skilled at transporting the reader and creating her settings so vividly. The reader moves between Paris at the end of the 1800's to New York and the Gilded Age. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about this era, one I wasn't familiar with. The author creates two well-drawn characters, one nice and one not-so-nice! I kept turning the pages to see where the story would end up. Highly recommend.
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My Thoughts

In her depiction of the era and detailed descriptions of extravagant clothing and luxurious residences, Belinda Alexandra’s extensive research is, evident throughout. I enjoyed reading and learning more about the time period this book was set in.

‘The Gilded Age’ refers to a period in the history of the United States that coincides approximately with the Victorian era in Britain and the Belle Époque in France. It was a time of rapid economic growth, when great fortunes were made and millions of immigrants flooded into the country. It was also a period of extreme wealth for some and destitution and abject poverty for others. The term was first coined by Mark Twain in his novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. ‘Gilded’ is not the same as ‘golden’. It implies a thin, shiny patina that covers something less attractive underneath.”

It took me a few chapters to 'get into this book' but about a third of the way in I did begin to enjoy it. There are so many twists and turns and Carole, the evil sister never ceased to amaze me about what she was capable of doing to her sister and even more so to her daughter,  Isadora. Carole and Emma, her younger sister, are like chalk and cheese. Emma hasn’t seen her sister in 20 years and she summons her to get her daughter ready for entry into society. The heights Carole goes to, just to be the best she can, to keep up with the elite group in New York  and prove she has the best house and the best of everything, is a stark contrast to poor Emma. We do not find out until near the end why this is the case between the two sisters! 

If you enjoy reading historical fiction and the dramas of the 19th Century, you will enjoy this book, but it wasn’t one of my favourites from Belinda Alexandra.  

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.
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I remember enjoying Belinda Alexandra's early books so I was looking forward to enjoying this one. Sadly, either my memory is foggy or her writing has deteriorated greatly.

I found this book horrible to read, and I gave up trying about a quarter in and just skimmed the story to see if the ending satisfied.

It's about a poor Parisian girl, Emma, who is a struggling but brilliant writer, who is promised that all her debts will be cancelled if she assists her ridiculously rich by estranged sister and her niece in New York. A lot of reviews of this book have mentioned that it is a glittering representation of America's Gilded Age, and it certainly is big on gold and jewels and gleam. I imagine the author was going for opulent. I found I needed to suspend reality to swallow it.

My biggest issue was the writing. There is no show, don't tell. In fact it's written where every movement, action, emotion and perceived emotion is written in childlike and boring detail. Is it meant to be journalistic? Who knows! It just feels poorly done and treats the reader like they're stupid. There are so many naff turns of phrase like "my heart skipped a beat", "my heart was in my mouth", etc. that it caused me actual physical pain. On one page the main character has eaten a large meal now that she's rich and not having to chase mice around Paris sewers for a  meal (that doesn't actually happen) and she comments "It was going to take a lot of walking around New York to work off all this food". If you're going to write a book set in the late 19th century don't use 21st century mentalities. I am sure no one thought or spoke like that in those times. Sigh. Disappointed and won't read Alexandra again.
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My Thoughts

I was happy to finally delve into a Belinda Alexandra book, being the fan of historical fiction that I am. This book did not disappoint with the depth and richness of its detail. Set in France but mostly New York in the late nineteenth century, it depicts a time referred to as the ‘Gilded Age’.

‘Mark Twain called the late 19th century the "Gilded Age." By this, he meant that the period was glittering on the surface but corrupt underneath. ... It is easy to caricature the Gilded Age as an era of corruption, conspicuous consumption, and unfettered capitalism.’

Alexandra clearly depicts this time of obscene wealth, with riches flaunted in incredulous ways - so ridiculous it’s almost beyond belief. Pit this against those who fought for the poor - those struggling to live and work in despicable circumstances - the self indulgent versus the socially conscience, makes for some interesting reading.  The descriptions of both character and setting are extremely detailed throughout, to my mind, at the cost of plot and story at times.

The main character Emma, is forced to move from France to New York to live/work for her sister in an effort to repay her debts. The characters are slowly established and Alexandra adeptly incorporates a  plethora of people and situations to realistically convey the spectrum of situations that indeed make up a ‘Gilded Age’.  At times I just wished for more story and less explanation. Don’t get me wrong, there are intriguing parts - some more predictable than others - but overall I was a little disappointed with particular outcomes. I would not have minded the lavish descriptions so much if the story had been equally as compelling. I thought towards the end the action was slightly ridiculous- especially in comparison to the rest of the book. Everything was just tied together so neatly. 

If you are interested in periods such as the Gilded Age, then this book rich in detail, with long descriptions of the lavish and opulent lifestyle of millionaires, you will fully appreciate. There is no denying Belinda Alexandra’s extensive research.

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release
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‘‘The Gilded Age’ refers to a period in the history of the United States that coincides approximately with the Victorian era in Britain and the Belle Époque in France. It was a time of rapid economic growth, when great fortunes were made and millions of immigrants flooded into the country. It was also a period of extreme wealth for some and destitution and abject poverty for others. The term was first coined by Mark Twain in his novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. ‘Gilded’ is not the same as ‘golden’. It implies a thin, shiny patina that covers something less attractive underneath.’ – Author note.

I don’t often start my reviews with a quote but this one really hones in on the themes explored within this novel. The type of extravagance detailed in this story is far from anything that I can credibly envisage. It’s obscene, and Belinda Alexandra contrasts this with the other side of New York with stunning clarity.

‘My fingers hovered over the pieces — they seemed too precious to touch. The tiara had seven spikes, the largest in the middle, each composed of an oval-shaped ruby surrounded by rose-cut diamonds. The lower semicircular band was a single row of diamonds over a layer of spherical pearls. The other pieces were equally magnificent. I couldn’t even guess how much Caroline had paid for the collection, but in terms of their historical value they were priceless.’

‘I shook my head, ashamed of what I and the rest of my family would look like to a woman in Mrs Dempsy’s situation, or to Mr Sauer, or the new mother whose baby would probably die. One of those hundred dollar bills Oliver had handed out at the ball for the men to roll into cigarettes would have kept these families housed for a year. What Caroline had spent on my costume and jewellery would have provided amply for a lifetime. If Lucy had handed out the party favours to the people in these slums, it could have changed the course of a whole neighbourhood’s history.’

The protagonist of this story is Emma Lacasse, a French writer and musician who travels to New York to reside with her estranged sister in a deal that borders on blackmail: Caroline will clear Emma’s debts if Emma grooms Caroline’s shy daughter into a catch for the debutante season. That Emma’s debts were actually incurred through paying for medical treatments and funeral expenses for their mutual grandmother has no effect at all on Caroline, who, quite frankly, is a sociopath. This becomes more and more apparent as the novel progresses. Hats off to Belinda Alexandra for creating a truly abdominal villain in Caroline. Few in literature would match her.

‘I would have been flattered by anyone else’s recognition of my positive attributes. But when Caroline cited them it sent a chill through me. Isadora had said that her mother took careful note of the tiniest details about people. I was sure that far from admiring me, Caroline was figuring out how to use those positive traits to her advantage.’

Given that this novel is set at the turn of the 20th century, there are themes of women’s suffrage explored, particularly within the context of women’s rights within a marriage. Emma herself was not married, and at the beginning of the novel it was all she hoped and dreamed for. I liked how this was turned on its head by the end of the novel, with Emma considering that her freedom was to be more sought after than the bonds of marriage and family. There were many examples within this story that cast marriage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in a less than favourable light. Slightly off topic, but still related to the themes of women’s suffrage, I really loved this scene where Emma and her New York friends prepare to go out to dinner for one of their ‘bachelorette’ get togethers.

‘Why did everyone take off their corsets?’ I asked Florence when we reached the street. ‘Because we’re going to indulge in a feast and we don’t want indigestion and constipation tomorrow. Besides, if you always wear a corset your back and abdominal muscles never develop strength of their own, and your internal organs get compressed and possibly become misshapen. Those garments badly affect women’s health, but if we don’t wear them when we go to work we’re hounded by men and women alike. It’s difficult enough to move in a man’s world without being accused of being a woman of loose morals.’

The constraint of a corset is very much a mirror to the constraint placed upon women in general. Just as a corset was designed to keep everything in its rightful place, so too were all of the laws of restriction related to women’s lives. Whether residing in a gilded cage or a hovel in the slums, the entrapment for some of the women in this story was not dissimilar. Hand in hand with these themes was the profiteering from the hardship of others, abuse of power and the lack of a welfare state. Heavy themes, but all were woven into the story with a finesse that is very much Belinda Alexandra’s trademark.

The Invitation is a story filled with glamour and deceit. There is plenty of drama and suspenseful moments, but I feel there was an anti-climatic feel when it came to consequences for the atrocities committed by Caroline. This woman operated in a world of her own and I was far from satisfied with how she ended up. We see enough despicable people in real life getting away with all manner of atrocities. In the world of commercial fiction, I prefer it when the villain doesn’t get to live happily ever after.

‘My voice cracked at the full realisation that Caroline had purposely destroyed the most precious thing in my life. But why did that surprise me? My sister knew no boundaries.’

Thanks is extended to HarperCollins Publishers Australia via NetGalley for providing me with a copy of The Invitation for review.
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I love Belinda Alexandra’s novels and The Invitation is another excellent read.

Set in the late nineteenth century in Paris and then New York it vividly portrays the Gilded Age of wealth and richness beyond belief with characters to match. The extravagance of the houses matched by the clothes worn was incredible. While some of the wealthy characters display a social conscience there are many who are totally self-indulgent ignoring the increasing and poorer population in New York who are struggling to earn a decent income and live in rundown housing owned by the very rich. 

The main character Emma takes us on her journey from Montmartre to New York City where she discovers a lot about her sister, niece and most of all, herself.  The characters are interesting with the social attitudes of the period very much evident - for example, once a woman marries she is virtually her husband’s property - however starting to emerge are women who are resisting this and asserting themselves.

The story kept my interest throughout and at times was very gripping and intense.

A highly recommended read.

Thank you to Netgalley and to HarperCollins Publishers Australia for an ebook copy to read and provide an honest review.
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