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.

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

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