An Elegant Woman

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Drawn from the author’s own family history, An Elegant Woman is a story of discovery and reinvention, following four generations of women in one American family. As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the narrative shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the winter cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both of their lives.

A profound meditation on memory, history, and legacy, An Elegant Woman follows one woman over the course of the 20th century, taking the reader from a drought-stricken farm in Montana to a yellow Victorian in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small town Ohio to a family reunion at a sweltering New Jersey pig roast. Framed by Isadora’s efforts to retell her grandmother’s journey—and understand her own—the novel is an evocative exploration of the stories we tell ourselves, and what we leave out.


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

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 by Dan Cryer

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 WOMAN charts 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

Martha McPhee has outdone herself with this irresistibly lively, worldly-wise, wonderfully imagined novel, wherein the American art of self-invention is explored with an 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 

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

This epic tale transports you out west and back in time…

Martha Stewart Living | Read more

Hofstra prof Martha McPhee talks about her novel ‘An Elegant Woman’

Newsday | Read more

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