Review of Erika Robuck's 'Fallen Beauty'
This fictional account of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay celebrates the life worth lived.
There’s nothing like a good historical fiction novel, blending elements of fact and imagination seamlessly into a medium that simultaneously informs and entertains. Erika Robuck, known for her earlier novels Call Me Zelda and Hemingway’s Girl, recreates the societal tension of the late twenties and early thirties, encompassing the sharp-toothed glamour of the sophisticates, the worrisome edge of the Depression’s horizon, and deep-rooted lyricism of the infamous poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. The novel is split between two female characters. The first is Laura Kelley, a talented seamstress and Chatham, New York’s own version of The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Pryne; the other, the poetess herself, known lovingly as “Vincie.”
Laura, in the wake of an accidental pregnancy, a cowardly lover’s abandonment and newfound orphanhood, struggles to make ends meet while caring for her beloved daughter, who both delights and reminds her daily of her lover’s absence. Chatham, run by a society of women who value above all a straight-laced and oftentimes cruel morality, considers Laura an outcast due to her out-of-wedlock child. Laura is torn between her natural gravitation toward gaiety and open-mindedness, and premature motherhood and all the restrictions and responsibilities that go along with the position. She is a conflicted woman whose affinity for design eventually creates both a problem and a pleasure for her, in the form of an eager and scandalous benefactress.
Millay, a well-known bisexual and nymphomaniac, is attracted to the fair Laura, as well as interested in her obvious talent for clothesmaking. Millay is portrayed as a deeply disturbed and wonderfully talented woman used to wild abandonment, excess and to getting her way in all matters. Time has crept up the hills to her infamous Steepletop residence — a glorious playground for the wicked, the beautiful and those who shirk off societal rules, childishly and charmingly. It is where she and her doting husband, Eugen, wile away the hours by drinking, copulating and writing. Millay’s passages are generally over-wrought dramatic monologues that seem in keeping with the poet’s grandiose views of life and love. She is violently lyrical, her words ornate and symbolic, harkening to the syntax of Greek poems, while Laura’s language is far more direct, deeply rooted in the day-to-day small cruelties that she is forced to endure due to her status as a single mother.
I was surprised that the novel took such an interest in Laura’s life. Laura is fictionalized, and I found it interesting that Robuck decided to put emphasis on this dramatized account of another, in a novel written for and about Millay. Not to say that Laura’s story is a letdown; it isn’t. It provides the main catalysts for the story, while Millay’s own narrative punctuates it. Millay does too have a story, but it’s far more an internal thing, dealing with her struggling grasp on her various lovers and her poetry. It’s more an unending lamentation for Vincie’s own demons and vices than actual plot-driven sequences. She doesn’t drive the story because she is the story. She shows herself as cruel, funny, deeply sardonic and in her own way an innocent: “a woman child,” as Laura says at one point. She is caught between strong passions and a willful desire to encompass everything she covets, no matter the risks.
It’s an interesting set-up for a novel in that it isn’t a novel strictly about Millay’s story, but about her accidental and inevitable influence on everything around her — and the surprising changes she accidentally makes in a young woman’s life. Through Millay’s own reckless abandon of rule-following, she inadvertently teaches Laura the true gift and ultimate freedom of seeking one’s happiness, of embracing her “fallen woman” status and gleaning something pure from its ashes. Fallen Beauty is about Millay’s external image and packaging: the self-titled priestess, duchess, madwoman and witch who brought equal measures of pleasure and insight, pain and turmoil to the lives around her and to the lives that read her.
Oh, if I could just burn with perpetual word-giving fever, and never have to deal with the menial tasks of the living. – Millay, page 111
This novel isn’t a biographical account of Millay, but a fictional story where she plays a key role in helping another highly-gifted woman find her voice after many years of unwarranted punishment, both self-inflicted and undeservedly given. The story celebrates art in its many, unfolding forms, its aesthetic sense. I also believe that Robuck was attempting to refashion a scenario that portrayed Millay’s empowerment of women during this time — a period of history that while still ruled by patriarchy, femininity was loosening itself from the strict gender order and allowing voices like Millay’s own to shine.
It’s a beautiful novel that celebrates the life worth lived: love, family, the artistic inclination, the “role” in a household that goes beyond homemaker and wife into something deeper and fresher. Some may be put off by the histrionics of Millay, but I think she is written in this way to further separate her from others. Hers is the voice of poetry — not logic, not reason, not morality — and within that voice, Robuck tries to refashion the woman and legend, making her terribly flawed but also a voice that, try as you might, you can never un-hear.
This review is part of our coverage for National Poetry Month. Poetry lovers can also enjoy a poem a day through April in our Southern Voice section and look forward to interviews with Southern poets in the coming weeks.