Thursday, September 16, 2021

#BookReview: The Second Mrs. Astor by Shana Abe

Biographical Historical Fiction

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Perfect for fans of Jennifer Chiaverini and Marie Benedict, this riveting novel takes you inside the scandalous courtship and catastrophic honeymoon aboard the Titanic of the most famous couple of their time—John Jacob Astor and Madeleine Force. Told in rich detail, this novel of sweeping historical fiction will stay with readers long after turning the last page.

Madeleine Talmage Force is just seventeen when she attracts the attention of John Jacob “Jack” Astor. Madeleine is beautiful, intelligent, and solidly upper-class, but the Astors are in a league apart. Jack’s mother was the Mrs. Astor, American royalty and New York’s most formidable socialite. Jack is dashing and industrious—a hero of the Spanish-American war, an inventor, and a canny businessman. Despite their twenty-nine-year age difference, and the scandal of Jack’s recent divorce, Madeleine falls headlong into love—and becomes the press’s favorite target.

On their extended honeymoon in Egypt, the newlyweds finally find a measure of peace from photographers and journalists. Madeleine feels truly alive for the first time—and is happily pregnant. The couple plans to return home in the spring of 1912, aboard an opulent new ocean liner. When the ship hits an iceberg close to midnight on April 14th, there is no immediate panic. The swift, state-of-the-art RMS Titanic seems unsinkable. As Jack helps Madeleine into a lifeboat, he assures her that he’ll see her soon in New York…

Four months later, at the Astors’ Fifth Avenue mansion, a widowed Madeleine gives birth to their son. In the wake of the disaster, the press has elevated her to the status of virtuous, tragic heroine. But Madeleine’s most important decision still lies ahead: whether to accept the role assigned to her, or carve out her own remarkable path… 
Am I the only one who hears Kate Winslet's voice in their head every time they look at Shana Abe's THE SECOND MRS. ASTOR? As with most adaptations, the Astors enjoy a cameo role in Titanic (1997). Few, if any, have placed the couple center stage, and I think that reality is what drew me to Abe's work. This lens was set in an angle I'd never seen, and I was excited at the potential of fresh perspective. 

According to Goodreads, most of my peers enjoyed everything about this book, and I think that wonderful. I genuinely love seeing readers find books that speak to them, but my experience with THE SECOND MRS. ASTOR was tempered by a desire for it to have gone further than it does. Without putting too fine a point on it, I'd hoped for something comparable to Alcott's THE DRESSMAKER, a story that spoke to the survivor experience and the advocacy roles adopted by Madeleine and her contemporaries. Abe's story, however, ends amid the solemnity of funeral processions and black silk. 

I realized this story wouldn't touch on Madeleine's interest in women's suffrage or the support she lent the "twilight sleep" campaign before I'd finished the prologue, but I was surprised at the ardency of the romance Abe presented her readers. Tickled though I was by the thought of genuine affection between Madeleine and Jack, I was thrown by how easily the two came together. Like Sissi in Pataki's THE ACCIDENTAL EMPRESS, Madeleine wasn't the girl on whom her parents initially pinned their ambitions, and, like Consuelo in Harper's AMERICAN DUCHESS, there's reason to believe Madeleine's heart belonged to another before Jack entered her life. I give Abe credit for depicting the social stigma that characterized the couple's marriage, but the historical record offers more dramatic potential than her novel affords, and I can't understand her hesitance to take advantage of that.

Critical though my opinion may seem, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend THE SECOND MRS. ASTOR to anyone interested in the infamous ocean liner. Abe's decadent descriptions of period decor, fashion, and jewelry are without rival, but I'm just not sure this title the best choice for those searching for profound thematic motifs or complex matters of the heart.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: September 15, 2021


  1. Shame... I would have wanted a book that focused on her life AFTER the romance and Titanic, but it sounds like this isn't that book. Same thing happened with books about Eliza Hamilton - they all finish after (or very shortly after) Alexander's death. But she lived decades and did tons after he died - where's THAT story. No, I won't be reading this. By the way I like On a Cold Dark Sea very much, and the Hazel Gaynor book is on my wish list.

    1. I always feel odd when the scope of a novel doesn't go where I know it could. It is the author's story, but at the same time, I think most readers like seeing authors push the envelope.