An Elegant Woman

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Martha McPhee’s marvelous fifth novel. For fans of Mary Beth Keane and Jennifer Egan, this powerful, moving multigenerational saga from National Book Award finalist Martha McPhee—ten years in the making—explores one family’s story against the sweep of 20th century American history.

Praise for An Elegant Woman

McPhee’s twist on the family saga is to add some metatextual layers to the story; she’s a novelist imagining a novelist who reimagines a family built on inventions.
– Rave Review from The Los Angeles Times | Read the full rave review by Mark Athitakis

McPhee is a gifted storyteller … and she weaves together a century’s worth of family gossip into a compelling tale. But more than that, her book feels like an homage to the art of gossip itself, to the important place that legends hold in all families.

– Columbia Magazine | Read more

“Calling her book “An Elegant Woman,” in which family lore conveys as much made-up grandeur as fact, is both fitting and ironic. For the elegant woman in question…embodies incessant self-invention…Throughout, the writing remains sharp, precise, and, yes, elegant…McPhee’s narrative swings back and forth in time, creating wide-angled panoramas followed by intimate closeups.”
– The Boston Globe | Read the full review here by Dan Cryer

The 10 Best Books of June
– The Christian Science Monitor | Read more

“Martha McPhee’s novel An Elegant Woman (Scribner, 404 pages, $27) explores the archetypally American virtue of self-invention. To its redoubtable, shape-shifting matriarch, Thelma, the past exists to be molded and falsified in the pursuit of an ideal…This is a portrait of self-creation in the vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but without his disenchantment.”
– The Wall Street Journal | Read the full review by Sam Sacks

“Isadora, the narrator of Martha McPhee’s fifth novel, “An Elegant Woman,” is a writer with deep curiosity about her family history. Fortunately, her grandmother — known, among other monikers, as Tommy, Katherine and Grammy — is a teller of endless tales, dashed here and there with truth…The novel’s finest pages are the ones set in Montana, where the sisters grow up against the backdrop of the American West…The writing is at its best in…tense moments, when no amount of name-changing can afford the characters any escape.”
– The Minneapolis Star Tribune | Read the full review by Jackie Thomas Kennedy

“Martha McPhee is less interested in revealing family secrets than in probing the way insistently told lies can become a kind of truth. Partly inspired by McPhee’s grandmother’s own stories, AN ELEGANT WOMANcharts the course of a hardscrabble youth in the raw American West that’s deftly camouflaged by a prosperous, sophisticated Eastern adulthood.”
– The New York Times Summer Reading List, 2020 | Read more

Spanning four generations of women through the 20th century, Martha McPhee’s fifth novel is a rich exploration of legacy and memory. It untangles the sacred myths of an American family, as a woman pieces together the story of her extraordinary — and highly elegant — grandmother.
– EW, The Hottest Books of Summer, 2020 | Read more

“A richly animated work, McPhee’s enthralling new novel glides through American history…McPhee elevates the generational saga into a dazzling, artfully detailed presentation of self-determination, women’s responsibilities and freedoms, and how people craft family legacies.”
– Booklist, starred review

“Thoughtful…Delicately rendered characters inform a richly textured family portrait.”
– Kirkus Reviews

“A novelist recounts the twists and turns of her grandmother’s life.”
– Publisher’s Weekly

“In these difficult times, we do need a big, involved, warm-hearted family saga. This is a great distraction and a wonderful story of a family’s changes throughout the twentieth century. Through good times and very tough ones, these characters are always engrossing and usually entertaining. A lovely and much needed diversion.”
– Anne Whalen, Brown University Bookstore

Martha McPhee has outdone herself with this irresistibly lively, worldly-wise, wonderfully imagined novel, wherein the American art of self-invention is explored with a clear eye to the price it exacts.  All the characters are richly realized–none more so than the narrator, who regards her family myths with amused skepticism, tenderness and a consistently engaging intelligence.
-Phillip Lopate 

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