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From heirlooms to Instagram, a novel about fake-it-till-you-make-it America

Martha McPhee, novelist and author of "An Elegant Woman."
(Ann Billingsley)

The Horatio Alger story is fake news. Americans have long romanticized the idea that we improve our fortunes purely through the sweat of our brows, a notion bolstered by Alger’s 19th century tales of poor boys clambering up the class ladder. In truth, though Alger’s lads worked hard, their advancement was just as often the product of dumb luck — finding a gold nugget as big as a basketball, saving a wealthy man from robbers, that sort of thing. Getting ahead in America generally results from a mix of moxie, fakery and fate.

Novelist Martha McPhee has gotten good mileage out of the myths surrounding American mobility; given the state of things, it’s surprising she doesn’t have more company. Her 2006 novel, “L’America,” involved an American woman angling for a perch in the Italian gentry à la Isabel Archer; “Dear Money” (2010) follows a novelist’s would-be rocket ride to wealth with the help of a Henry Higgins-esque bond trader. Her new novel, “An Elegant Woman,” expands this distinctly American drive across the span of a century and the breadth of the country.

McPhee has earned this sweep: Over five novels she has developed such a sophisticated grasp of social-climbing characters that she’s able to track three generations with an easy grace many historical novels lack. And because the historical novel doesn’t mean much if it can’t speak to the present, she grasps that the urge to rise up and cover one’s tracks in the process hasn’t changed; we just have different tools for the task. We can still forge whatever pedigree we like — with the right filter.

The narrator of the new novel is (again) a novelist herself: as the story opens, Isadora is rummaging through artifacts in the New Jersey home of her late grandmother, Thelma. Here, a china bowl that Thelma said belonged to a relative of James Fenimore Cooper; there, a photo of Isadora’s grandfather, believed to be a scion of the family that produced Buster Brown shoes. Thelma, a nurse who married well, clung to these artifacts as proof of her “elegance,” a word that becomes increasingly poisoned as the novel moves along. Isadora and her sisters are divvying up possessions but uncertain about the legacy they’re actually inheriting.

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So much of Thelma’s “elegance” turns out to be built on fabrications: The bowl has no actual literary provenance, the grandfather no meaningful relationship to a shoe dynasty. Thelma’s greatness was often a product of play-acting. (One family surname, Fine, mischievously underscores the point. “Fine” means classy; it also means unremarkable.) Isadora assembles a version of events that’s more engrossing than the official family lore but also more embarrassing.

A book jacket for "An Elegant Woman."
(Scribner)

In truth, in order to survive the family needed to fracture. In 1910 Thelma and her sister, Katherine, escaped their broken home with their mother, Glenna, to reboot in Montana. There, Glenna could start a new life as a teacher on the new homesteads. But because women teachers were required to be single, the sisters were effectively dumped with caretakers miles away. Glenna nurtures an independent, first-wave feminist streak: She campaigns on behalf of Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress. But success, Glenna is sure, depends on pretending her daughters don’t exist. When she forces the girls to move again, to Nevada, a heavy undertow of resentment follows. “[Thelma] repeated I hate you over and over in her head on the long journey,” McPhee writes. “She knew just exactly what was being asked of her, bought and sold, to love and then to shed love as easily as slipping out of clothes.”

Lacking a conventional mother, Thelma and Katherine effectively parent themselves, saving each other from snake bites, fires and other Wild West perils. Erasing and revising identity becomes the family tradition, so when Thelma finds an opportunity to move east to become a nurse (“Ladies were in the East; women were in the West”), she needs to use Katherine’s name and high school diploma.

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Thelma finds her fortune in New York, saving the life of a rich man’s daughter in Alger-esque fashion; Katherine languishes as a stay-at-home mother in Los Angeles. Both find their lives unsatisfying. Back in the present, Isadora suspects that her grandmother was worn down by a lifetime of cover stories. “Narrative is everything,” McPhee writes. “Own your narrative, whatever you want it to be. We create our origin stories, our myths, and we believe them, and then others believe them. And then they are the truth.”

McPhee doesn’t moralize on this point. Indeed, a central theme of the book (and much of her work) is that this kind of self-reinvention was critical for women whose options were otherwise limited or foreclosed. “Fake it till you make it” can be a sensible strategy. So can putting yourself in the path of wealthy men. But it’s a strategy with difficult and sometimes damaging consequences.

The tight-knit upper-class family saga McPhee trades in doesn’t get around much anymore. It’s the province of a passing generation of writers like Jane Smiley, Sue Miller, Joyce Carol Oates and the late Ward Just, who all explored the dark sides of patrician attainment. (McPhee owes little to her father, the eminent New Yorker journalist John McPhee, except perhaps an admirable appreciation for the foursquare, fact-dense sentence.)

McPhee’s twist on the family saga is to add some metatextual layers to the story; she’s a novelist imagining a novelist who reimagines a family built on inventions. And as she brings the novel into the present day, she has Isadora wonder if the next generation thinks it can sidestep these narratives, or even the need for any kind of narrative. Watching her daughter take photos for a Snapchat story that’ll vaporize in a day, Isadora asks, “Where’s the plot development?” Her daughter replies, “You’re old-school.”

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More likely, though, any family that cares about keeping up appearances will keep spinning stories about how they look. Thelma’s fakery has a modern-day echo in Lori Loughlin’s efforts to stage-manage her influencer daughter’s passage into USC; no matter how high up the class ladder you are, there’s always another rung. A borrowed diploma (or staged photo on a rowing machine) offers a temptation to polish your image, leap over the gap of what you lack.

“Hokum, blarney, fabulation, ballyhoo arrive not on the local but by means of the express, the high-priority freight train, of narration, bypassing the nitty-gritty whistle-stops, where the peculiar knock of fact can be heard,” McPhee writes. Invention is the sort of thing that keeps a lot of families going. Novelists and Instagrammers too.

An Elegant Woman
Martha McPhee
Scribner: 416 pages, $27


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