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.
What was it that fascinated you about writing about New York – and during the Gilded Age in particular?
I lived and worked in New York from 1998-2001. It was a time of great economic growth and money was king. It was a city of power and greed – then the Twin Towers were attacked and the city became much more inward looking and a lot of people began soul searching. Is money really everything? I was always fascinated by New York’s history and I saw a lot of comparisons between the two time periods – the Gilded Age was an era of great excess and greed and the gap between the ultra-rich and the poor was wide. But after the sobering events of the sinking of the Titanic and WWI, the city became much more reflective and the wealthy in society were much more welcoming of social reform and participated more in philanthropic activities. America is often termed now as experiencing a ‘new Gilded Age’ which makes me wonder what might be coming next.
Gilded is not golden. Gilded has the sense of a patina covering something else. It’s the shiny exterior hiding the rot underneath. You certainly see this in The Invitation.
Yes, exactly. New York Society in the Gilded Age appeared so glamorous on the surface. Fifth Avenue was a parade of European style mansions and castles. The opera was the place to see and be seen. Women travelled to Paris twice a year to have their wardrobes designed by Charles Worth and very often wore their couture dresses only once. Many of the wealthy saw themselves as setting an aristocratic example for the middle and lower classes. Yet, underneath this was a complex arrangement of power alliances, corruption, deviancy, betrayal and even murder.
Women had a particular role in Society, didn’t they?
The United States did not have royal families and aristocrats, and the wealthy families of New York were determined to take on equivalent roles. A ‘war’ began between the old moneyed families of New York the newly rich families who were making their fortunes in coal and oil, railroads and newspapers.
The original New York families valued a cultured and closed off world while the newly rich bid for power in ostentatious displays of wealth. They thought nothing of having their architects and interior decorators plunder the castles and chateaux of Europe, sometimes buying whole rooms including ceilings and floors to build their own palaces on Park Avenue.
But it was not the business titans themselves who fought this battle for prestige and social power, but their wives. The scene of the battlefield was the society balls and drawing rooms and the brokers of power were often the architects, interior designers and party planners who advised the newly rich of all things in regards to ‘taste.’
Your two characters, the sisters Emma and Caroline, have a peculiar relationship, don’t they? Caroline seems to become more manipulative, controlling and almost psychotic as the story goes on.
Narcissistic personality disorder wasn’t named as a disease in 1899 but it has certainly been prevalent throughout history. The lack of empathy, control over others and emotional manipulation that are part of disorder have a devastating effect on the family members of the sufferer. The novel has a domestic noir feel to it as Isadora and Emma are not safe in the company of their mother and sister. Oliver, Caroline’s husband, is almost emasculated despite being one of the most successful men in the United Sates. I enjoy reading psychology books to help develop my characters and when I came across one on narcissism I was fascinated. We have all encountered this personality type at some time in our lives – they can be charming and charismatic but something is always a little off. I find someone who is constantly manipulating and lying while pretending to have your best interests at heart much scarier than an outright thug. How much more terrifying, then, would it be if this personality type was a close member of your family?
While the historical detail in this novel is exquisite, the story itself follows a different path to your other novels. Tell us about that.
I wanted to write a more contained story rather than a generational one this time around. This story takes place over a year. I did that to raise the tension and to create a claustrophobic atmosphere, giving the sensation of Emma becoming more entwined in her sister’s trap. Instead of focussing on how world events impact on the individual, in this story I explore more deeply the dysfunctional relationships in a family – sister and sister, mother and daughter, husband and wife. The Hopper family is not a harmonious one at all – it is dominated by one woman with a maniacal thirst for power and control.
Who will enjoy The Invitation and what do you hope they will take from your writing?
The Invitation will appeal to readers who love stories set in lavish settings and have plenty of twists, turns and secrets. I set out to thoroughly entertain my readers but also to give them a cautionary tale about recognising when and how they are being manipulated – and to escape as quickly as they can before they find themselves caught in the clutches of a sociopath!
What are you currently reading?
A Life in Frocks, by Kelly Doust, author of Dressing the Dearloves. It’s a memoir about one woman’s love of clothes and the significance they have played in her life. It’s really charming.
The Invitation by Belinda Alexandra is available November 2018 in all good bookstores.