“Set in the glamorous 1920s, A Fine Imitation is an intoxicating debut that sweeps readers into a privileged Manhattan socialite’s restless life and the affair with a mysterious painter that upends her world, flashing back to her years at Vassar and the friendship that brought her to the brink of ruin. Vera Bellington has beauty, pedigree, and a penthouse at The Angelus–the most coveted address on Park Avenue. But behind the sparkling social whirl, Vera is living a life of quiet desperation… Vera faces an impossible choice–whether to cling to her familiar world of privilege and propriety or to risk her future with the enigmatic man who has taken her heart. A Fine Imitation explores what happens when we realize that the life we’ve always led is not the life we want to have.” Source: Penguin Random House.
“He who is subjected to a field of visibility… inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own [subjugation]” ~ Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish
Basically, what Foucault was referring to is that pervading sense we feel to act in prescribed ways – to discipline ourselves into conformity. We subscribe to the dress-code at work, for example, we observe rules of decorum in our interactions (well, most of us try to), we may even get married and have kids because that’s what’s always been ‘expected’ of us (not least of all by our parents, whom many of us also try to please in various other ways as well…)
We do all this, Foucault contends, because we live in a web of surveillance: we are forever watched, counted, tracked, observed. We’re not talking the NSA Email Surveillance program, but something more like: Facebook, this and other blogs, our credit-card records, our dress, our jobs, even our photo-albums – these are all ways in which our lives are documented. All pf these are records used to evaluate/judge our worthiness/standing.
Foucault’s insights always struck me as much more devastating than dystopian visions of state-surveillance (like those typified by, for example, Margaret Atwood or by The Hunger Games trilogy). For at least in that latter case, power asserts itself as an external force. We thus have some chance of resisting it, at least psychologically or spiritually, if not materially. These chances are shattered to dust by Foucault’s description of power, which sows the seeds of self-modulation in our very psyches, and which thus teaches us to live, unquestioning, enmeshed in approved conventions and expectations. Basically, according to this view, we subjugate ourselves by adhering to rules made up by others and by following prescribed patterns of acceptable behavior.
A Fine Imitation is one story of escaping the dreary existence we lead when we chose to abide ‘societal standards’ more than our own will and passions. Vera, a New York heiress, is trapped in a vapid world chock-full of society functions, charity galas, the latest fashion, 8-course dinners, and so on and the like, but entirely void of friendship, personal fulfillment and love (her husband, of course, only married her for the name and financial assets).
The structure alternates timelines – in 1910 we follow Vera during her time at Vassar, and observe her failed friendship with Bea, a vivacious, spirited, earnest young woman (Vera sold out her friend for the sake of remaining in “society’s” good graces). In the 1920s, we watch as Vera’s marriage is derailed by her budding recognition that she has the power to escape her dreary existence. The medium of this realization, of course, is the most cliched trope in the romantic-playbook: the handsome, mysterious, foreign, brilliant artist who sweeps Vera off her feet (in his broody, artistic way).
Mostly, I found this book as empty and uninspiring as Vera’s world of high-society. Vera is a timid, pathetic woman, an ardent devotee of ‘Society’ (she grovels to Mother, and patiently endures her husband’s trysts for years). No development of her character, not even those manifested in the contrived situations woven by Brock, convinced me that Vera’s journey was plausible. If anyone could have ‘escaped’ her situation, in other words, I am quite skeptical that it would have been Vera.
The characterizations in this book weren’t the only thin, brittle elements. The Gilded Age setting is barely visible, and not at all palpable (basically, people drink at home dinner parties but can’t do so out on the town, re: the Prohibition Era). The romance is constructed out of 100% recycled materials (the dreamy artist, the reluctant wife, the ways in which the point comes when she inevitably stops resisting, tearing his clothes off in fits of rebellion and passion).
I was riveted for the first half (before the story gave way to a full-blown Harlequin). Brock’s language at first was literate (if not literary) and the story carried an aura of suspense (hence, +1 to 2/5). But, the latter portion of A Fine Imitation seemed written carelessly, in haste, without any attempt at originality of plot, language, or characterization.
Lastly, one significant detractor from my rating – but, it’s a spoiler.
[scroll for spoiler]
Vera runs off with the artist, who turns out to be a criminal (forger). They take on new identities, and lead comfortable lives as the artist becomes a set-painter in Hollywood. He provides so amply that Vera does not have to work, and she amuses herself by learning how to cook and such like.
Moral of the story: shed it all, leave ‘society’s expectations’ behind to… become a fugitive? leave an unsuccessful marriage for… risking a future with a creepy man you barely know, who could as well, in ‘real life’, turn out to be a more serious criminal? leave an empty life of not providing for yourself to… have another man provide for you?
Not quite the meaningful, satisfying exploration of escaping our self-imposed cages I was hoping for.