Three Books...
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Mon January 23, 2012

Putting On Heirs: 3 Rich And Snooty Reads

Originally published on Thu February 16, 2012 4:10 pm

Surely I am not the only one who has harbored secret dreams of being an heiress — not the nouveau riche kind with a reality television crew trailing behind me, but the sort with a full staff, gobs of silver and afternoons spent on the hunt. Though I've come around to my untitled American life, I still adore reading books about drafty old houses and the privileged people who inhabit them.

If the success of the PBS series Downton Abbey is any indication, I'm not alone. The satisfying truth is that these individuals are rarely perfect. The glamour belies the financial strain that comes along with a house too large to keep up, and the customs of the aristocracy are difficult to maintain over several generations. The lives of heiresses are complicated matters, which of course means they provide excellent material for books.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The past year has seen more than its fair share of populist anger, but author Emma Straub doesn't care. She still likes to read books about that lucky one percent. She recommends three of them for our series Three Books.

EMMA STRAUB: Surely, I am not the only one who has harbored secret dreams of being an heiress, but the satisfying truth is that these individuals are rarely perfect. The lives of heiresses are complicated matters, which of course means that they provide excellent material for books.

"The Sisters," Mary Lovell's biography of the Mitford sisters, is the perfect entry point for the reader who has always longed to know what it's really like on the other side of a great house's walls.

Jessica and Nancy became novelists, Unity became a Nazi, Diana went to prison, Pam left the society life for a more rural one, and Debra became a duchess, to this day successfully running a grand estate.

"Great Granny Webster" by Caroline Blackwood is a razorblade of a novel that tells the story of a young woman's relationship with her frosty and bitter great granny. The titular relation is rich, stingy and prefers her freezing cold house perfectly silent, too. That the book is autobiographically-based makes the wickedness all the more startling and Blackwood's witty sense of humor all the more impressive.

Of course, there are heiresses on this side of the pond, too. Rosamond Bernier was born in Philadelphia. Her father was American, her mother English, and she was raised by French governesses because they were the best. Her Polaroid style memoir, "Some of My Lives," paints her as a well-dressed and charming Zelig of the 20th century art and music worlds.

Reading the book, it's not hard to see why Bernier made such a good impression. She comes off as both plucky and kind, and if the corners had been sanded a bit, who would argue with her?

So did the books break me of my habit and leave me content with my world, full as it is of blue jeans and takeout containers? Of course not. Instead, they give me hope that I will some day have a house full of antiques and salty relations and artists begging to paint my portrait. I don't see why it couldn't happen. Do you?

BLOCK: Emma Straub is the author of the new book "Other People We Married." You can find more Three Books suggestions at the Books section of our website, NPR.org.

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