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Wednesday, April 19, 2017
1:22 pm edt
Night She Won Miss America
Halfway through reading The Night She Won Miss America by Michael Callahan, assuming it was purely a work of fiction, I realized that the well-written – with just a
few outlandish, perhaps impossible moments – could, in fact, be plausibly feasible. Could the young winner of the 1950s
pageant really abdicate her crown? Did she? Really? But, more importantly… Why?
In the early days of the
Miss American Pageant, an escort was provided for each of the contestants. The young men were charged with “entertaining”
the young ladies, accompanying them around Atlantic City, being their dance partners at pageant events…in short, the
girls’ dates for the week of events and festivities. They were expected to be courteous, respectful, mannerly, and,
most of all, above board (no hanky-panky). Okay. Now, picture this: Betty Jane Welch, a striking beauty from Delaware, is
a reluctant contestant who falls instantly in love with her escort, Grifford McAllister, the strikingly handsome son of one
of the contest coordinators. She decides she’d prefer him over the title…
The whys and hows of this
seemingly heart rendering event, and the incidents and episodes that led up to it, is the crux of this easy-to-read yet powerfully
stimulating novel. Callahan has taken the real story of Bette Cooper of Hackensack, New Jersey, who, in real life, in 1937,
absconded with her escort after winning the crown, and returned after 24 hours to her duties only to relinquished the title
to runner-up Marilyn Meseke of Ohio. Set in Atlantic City thirteen years later, this talented writer embellished her circumstances,
added very real-to-life characters, and factitiously sensationalized the facts, turning his third novel into a quasi-thriller,
complete with cliff-hanging chapter endings and subtle clues that compel one to read on (and on) to solve the enigmatic puzzle.
The ending, while not so surprising nor unique, is more than just satisfying. Especially since – SPOILER ALERT –
the novel starts with a near fatal accident…
I started my advanced reader copy of The Night She Won Miss America last winter, on a particularly cold, dank Sunday morning, swathed in blankets, huddling on the couch. I thought
I’d read a chapter or two, then take the hound for a walk, fix dinner, and then watch Masterpiece Theatre. I had planned
to finish the novel by the end of the following week. Well, five hours later (with only a brief break for my canine companion),
I finished Callahan’s tour-de-force, savoring every page, almost wishing it would never end. It’s that good!
No stranger to glitz and glamour, Michael Callahan is a Philadelphia-based author (practically a neighbor) who has
covered several Miss America beauty pageants. The author of two previous novels, A Swing for a Lifetime and Searching
for Grace Kelly, he is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, and has written for, among other magazines, Elle
as well as for The New York Times. The perfect credentials for writing the story of Miss Cooper a.k.a. the novel’s
reluctant entrant Betty Jane Welch who will captivate your heart, stir you soul, and guide you behind and beyond the scenes
of one of American’s most dazzling and sensational national traditions.
To paraphrase the iconic song:
“Here it is, dear America… Here it is – your ideal… summer book!”
Enjoy the read!
Friday, April 7, 2017
4:42 pm edt
It’s been – what? – a year and a half
since the last episode of Season 6 first aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre… and I still suffer from the occasional
twinges of Downton Abbey withdrawal. They have lessened in intensity over time, but a week or so ago, sharp pangs
suddenly struck in the fiction section of our local library when I stumbled upon Belgravia by Julian Fellowes.
Fellowes is, of course, the multi-faceted, multi-talented famed creator and writer of Downton Abbey. I’ve
been a great fan of his ever since seeing him in the PBS series Monarch of the Glen and watching his seminal
movie, Gosford Park (2002). With scenes of his last television classic bouncing around in my head, I instantly longed
to immerse myself into yet another of his works.
Belgravia, in the tradition of Charles Dickens, was first serialized two years ago. Each of the eleven monthly episodes
was published via an online application (wwwjulianfellowesbelgravia.com) to be purchased, downloaded, savored, and digested
until the next episode was available. As intriguing as this might be, I must admit that I am a binge-reader (as well as a
binge-watcher). I like my books to be whole, complete; their plots available in their entirety, not parceled out over time.
I am a firm believer in instant gratification when it comes to reading a good novel – which Belgravia is. Besides, the aggregate price for
the individual episodes was more than the average price of a whole book.
So, I decided to wait until Fellowes’ latest literary
venture was published in hardcopy. And there it was, finally, sitting on a shelf, just waiting for me to bring it home (for
free!) and cosset myself between its pages.
Seeped in Nineteen Century England history, mores, and culture, Belgravia is the story of the intertwining
of two families: Lord Peregrine and Lady Caroline Brockenhurst and James and Anne Trenchard. While the Brockenhursts are landed
gentry – peers of the realm, as it were – the Trenchards are basically tradespeople; although James has ambitions
of working his way up and into the higher echelons of royal society. As the story unfolds, he is nearly successful. Except
for one glitche…
The story begins on June 5, 1815, in Brussels. The Duchess of Richmond is hosting an elaborate ball – the
“ball of the century” – attended by the most elite of British and Belgian society, as well as English army
officers. Lord and Lady Brockenhurst and Edmund, their handsome only son – a member of the 52th Light infantry –
have, of course, been invited. As well as, by virtue of James being the victualler to the British army, the Trenchards along
with Sophia, their lively and lovely 18-year old daughter. And while the guests dine and dance in opulence, Napoleon troops
are marching up toward them from France. For, you see, it is the eve of the Battle of Waterloo and in the midst of the gala
the troops are called to arms…
Fast forward to 1841. We are in London and James Trenchard has made a fortune partnering
in the construction of large houses on Belgrave Square – Belgravia – where the Brockenhursts now reside. We learn
that Edmund died in the Battle of Waterloo, leaving the inheritance of his parents’ estates and wealth to his indigent
Uncle Stephen and John, his ne-er-do-well philandering son. We also learn that Sophia Trenchard has also died less than a
year after the battle. Oliver, her now-adult younger brother, is dissatisfied with his lot in life, wanting nothing more than
to be a country gentleman, rather than a businessman. Susan, his wife, is factious, greedy, and conniving. Or is she?
The stage is set.
How and why the lives of these two variant families and their members become entwined and enmeshed together form the intricacies
and intrigues of Belgravia’s plot and twisting – often surprising – underpinning sub-plots. Even
the servants – as in Downton Abbey – are also embroiled in their story as it masterfully unfolds. And,
of course, like anything else Fellowes and everything written about the Victorian Era, I was mesmerized by this wonderfully
written page-turner. Romance, scandal mystery, intrigue, history, secrets, and passion are all rolled up into one in this
masterfully created psychological thriller. This is Julian Fellowes at his best.
It goes without saying that the author is a fastidious
writer. He leaves nothing to chance nor, at times, to the imagination. As he did with Downton Abbey and Gosford
Park, he drew heavily upon his own experiences growing up in English society (Lord Brockernhurst is named after his father,
Peregrine). Aiding him in this endeavor of non-parallel research was a historical consultant, none other than Lindy Woodhead,
who coproduced the PBS series Mr. Selfridge, based upon her biography of the noted Ninetieth Century London department
store owner. Thus, his detailed descriptions of daily life and culture during the Victoria Age are not only scenic and well-articulated,
but correct in every aspect. It is as if the reader is transported to the places and times and becomes vicariously an integral
part of the events and moments as they unfold. I know I was. I fell in love – sometimes hate – with each of the
characters who are finally turned and molded into real-life personalities and circumstances. And, at times, so lost was I
in their lies, that I found myself talking out loud to and about them…
So, for those of you out there who, like me, are still
suffering from intermittent yearnings for the return of Downtown Abbey, Belgravia is the perfect literary panacea.
Enjoy the read!
J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is
an author, poet, and librettist. Her currenty published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations,
volumes of poetry, stories
for children (of all ages) and
a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville
during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members
of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A
Collection of More Spiritual Poems
We Three Kings
Beauty and the Beast
Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding
Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She
is currently working on her fourth novel.