I recently picked up a copy of Erika Robuck’s novel FALLEN BEAUTY, featuring a fictionalized account of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s encounter with a local seamstress, while she was writing her sonnets at Steepletop. Author Robuck’s earlier novels HEMINGWAY’S GIRL and CALL ME ZELDA clearly point to her love of strong and intriguing women of the ’20’s and ’30’s. Who can blame her? Although I have not read her other novels, BEAUTY has at least prompted my interest enough to delve more deeply into the works and biography of Millay and finally read the definitive biography on her, SAVAGE BEAUTY by Nancy Milford.
Robuck’s imagined Millay is at times repulsive and at others endearing and sympathetic. She captures the capricious nature of the poet along with her extremes of passion. The Millay character, based on what I assume is exhaustive research, plays against the character of a local seamstress, Laura Kelley, who has been left to raise her illegitimate daughter alone, abandoned by a cowardly lover in a small-minded town. The story alternates between the lives and view points of these two different women, until circumstances push them together as Laura secretly creates sumptuous costumes for Millay’s readings.
The book description tells us each woman is forced to confront what it means to be a fallen woman and what price she is willing to pay to live a full life. I see that in the character of Laura, but not so much with Millay. In fact, in the end, the Millay character rather falls off the stage of the novel for a while as Laura Kelley finds new love and confronts old enemies. Although I enjoyed the story, I felt that all of the women in it (Laura and her sister, Marie; Laura’s nemesis Agnes; Millay) were emotionally overwrought all of the time to the point that I found some scenes quite hard to believe and exhausting. The work also transformed from a fictionalized account and exploration of Millay to a sort of romance novel half way through and to the end.
Roebuck created a richly imagined small town populated with a variety of characters and a situation not dissimilar from The Scarlet Letter and then inserted the bohemian lifestyle of Millay as counterpoint. It is a worthy concept to explore, but I’m not sure it was fully developed.