The Invitation is a tale of two sisters, set against the backdrop of Paris and New York. Marking a slight change in direction for Belinda Alexandra, The Invitation, while having the exotic locations and rich historical details her readers enjoy, is more a story of intense relationships between sisters and mother and daughter, than a saga.
The story opens in Paris in 1899. Emma Lacasse has been estranged from her elder sister Caroline for nearly 20 years. Apart from her beloved grandmother, whom she nursed until the end, Caroline is
Emma’s only family and she has always yearned to be closer to her big sister. Caroline however, has not been the slightest bit interested in Emma.
Impoverished writer Emma – in debt because of her grandmother’s illness – is in love with Claud, a painter. Their relationship is sketched against the backdrop of bohemian Monmartre, brought vividly to life by Alexandra. No-one has much but they are all passionate about their art and there’s a simplicity and joy in their threadbare way of life that makes it seem romantic, although Emma’s thin-soled shoes don’t sound all that great.
The only blot on their relationship is Emma’s desire to marry and Claud’s opposition to the idea, not because he doesn’t love Emma, but because he dreads the domesticity that may come with marriage and its impact on his ambitions as a painter.
One day, their lives change drastically when out of the blue, Caroline invites Emma to visit her in New York, all expenses – and her debts – covered on the condition she tutors her shy niece, Isadora, to prepare her for her debut into society and marriage.
But the devil is in the detail and it soon becomes apparent that Caroline is a piece of work. First, she will only pay off Emma’s debts in stages, with the final amount not repaid until Isadora walks down the aisle. When the uber-rich Caroline who could afford to buy her own ship buys Emma a second-class ticket for the voyage, you get the first glimpse of her meanness.
Sweet Emma is idealistic and naïve – an innocent abroad who walks blindly into the dark web woven by the ruthless Caroline. Everyone, including her own daughter and husband, is Caroline’s pawn in her wicked game.
Isadora is adorable, a talented young sculptor who finds a true ally and friend in her Aunt Emma. Her first love is art as well, and the budding, young sculptor finds a true ally and friend in her Aunt Emma.
A plot ripe with deceit and glamour plays out in high society in New York. It is the city’s famous Gilded Age and Emma is plunged into a world of opulence and excess beyond her wildest dreams.
Caroline owns jewellery that once belonged to Marie Antionette, has furniture inlaid with gold and ivory, and dressed as Catherine the Great for her own costume party, wears a crown encrusted with pearls and diamonds, topped with a giant ruby. Her ballroom, turned into a copy of the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, is covered in cascades of pink and white orchids and roses, and solid silver chandeliers hang from the the vaulted ceiling with paintings glorifying the reign of Louis XIV.There’s a liveried servant for nearly every guest.
In her author’s note, Alexandra observes that gilt ‘implies a thin, shiny patina that covers something less attractive underneath,’ and sure enough, below all that opulence bubbles deceit, depravity and corruption. Maybe even murder. New York society is divided into the old, monied families and the nouveau riche like Caroline. She wants to be the society queen, but first she has to dethrone the incumbent. A bitter contest ensues.
Meanwhile, the dark underbelly of New York is revealed, a sharp reminder of the realities of a society without welfare and one that is anything but egalitarian: rickets is common among the poor, as is infant and maternal mortality and there are shocking working and living conditions. Meanwhile, the rich landlords and factory owners live a life of disgusting excess.
Set at a time when world believed inherently in the superior wisdom and intelligence of men and their right to control women’s lives, the entrapment of women whether living in the lap of luxury or in vile slums, is central to The Invitation.
Makes you reflect on how much has changed and how much has remained the same, with women still used as decorative objects – as eye candy at sports events, for example.
A heady mix of Dangerous Liasions, The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (a century ago) and Cinderella, The Invitation is a wildly entertaining and absorbing read that leaves you with a lot to think about.
About the Author:
Belinda Alexandra has been published to wide acclaim in Australia and internationally. She is the daughter of a Russian mother and an Australian father and has been an intrepid traveller since her youth. Her love of other cultures is matched by her passion for her home country, Australia, where she is a volunteer carer for the NSW Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service (WIRES).
Belinda is also an ambassador for the World League for the Protection of Animals (Australia) and lives in Sydney with a menagerie of adored pets.