Swans of Fifth Avenue (Benjamin)

The Swans of Fifth Avenue 
Melanie Benjamin, 2016
Random House
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780345528698

A triumphant new novel about New York’s “Swans” of the 1950s—and the scandalous, headline-making, and enthralling friendship between literary legend Truman Capote and peerless socialite Babe Paley.

Of all the glamorous stars of New York high society, none blazes brighter than Babe Paley.

Her flawless face regularly graces the pages of Vogue, and she is celebrated and adored for her ineffable style and exquisite taste, especially among her friends—the alluring socialite Swans Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill.

By all appearances, Babe has it all: money, beauty, glamour, jewels, influential friends, a prestigious husband, and gorgeous homes. But beneath this elegantly composed exterior dwells a passionate woman—a woman desperately longing for true love and connection.

Enter Truman Capote. This diminutive golden-haired genius with a larger-than-life personality explodes onto the scene, setting Babe and her circle of Swans aflutter. Through Babe, Truman gains an unlikely entrée into the enviable lives of Manhattan’s elite, along with unparalleled access to the scandal and gossip of Babe’s powerful circle.

Sure of the loyalty of the man she calls "True Heart," Babe never imagines the destruction Truman will leave in his wake. But once a storyteller, always a storyteller—even when the stories aren’t his to tell.

Truman’s fame is at its peak when such notable celebrities as Frank and Mia Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, and Rose Kennedy converge on his glittering Black and White Ball. But all too soon, he’ll ignite a literary scandal whose repercussions echo through the years.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue will seduce and startle readers as it opens the door onto one of America’s most sumptuous eras. (From the publisher.)

Read Vanity Fair article.

Author Bio
Aka—Melanie Hauser
Birth—November 24. 1962
Where—Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
Education—Indiana University (Purdue University at Indianapolis)
Currently—lives near Chicago, Illinois

Melanie Benjamin is the pen name of American writer, Melanie Hauser (nee Miller). Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, Melanie is one of three children. Her brother Michael Miller is a published non-fiction author and musician. Melanie attended Indiana University—Purdue University at Indianapolis then married Dennis Hauser in 1988; they presently reside in the Chicago, Illinois area with their two sons.

Early writing
As Melanie Hauser, she published short stories in the In Posse Review and The Adirondack Review. Her short story "Prodigy on Ice" won the 2001 "Now Hear This" short story competition that was part of a WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio) program called Stories on Stage, where short stories were performed and broadcast.

When Melanie sold her first of two contemporary novels, she had to add Lynne to her name (Melanie Lynne Hauser) to distinguish her from the published sports journalist Melanie Hauser.

The first of Melanie's contemporary novels, Confessions of Super Mom was published in 2005; the sequel Super Mom Saves the World came out in 2007.  In addition to her two contemporary novels, Melanie also contributed an essay to the anthology IT'S A BOY and maintained a popular mom blog called The Refrigerator Door.

Fictional biographies
Under the pen name Melanie Benjamin (a combination of her first name and her son's first name), she shifted genres to historical fiction. Her third novel, Alice I Have Been, was inspired by Alice Liddell Hargreaves's life (the real-life Alice of Alice in Wonderland). Published in 2010, Alice I Have Been was a national bestseller and reached the extended list of The New York Times Best Seller list.

In 2011, Benjamin fictionalized another historical female. Her novel The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb focuses on the life of Lavinia Warren Bump, a proportionate dwarf featured in P.T. Barnum's shows.

Her third fictionalized biography, The Aviator's Wife, was released in 2013 and centers on Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of famed aviator, Charles Lindberg.

The Swans of Manhattan, published in 2016, revolves around the Truman Capot-Babe Paley friendship and the glitterati of Manhattan during the 1950s and '60s. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 2/14/2016.)

Book Reviews
This moving fictionalization brings the whole cast of characters back to vivid life. Gossipy and fun, it’s also a nuanced look at the beauty and cruelty of a rarefied, bygone world.

Benjamin’s fact-based narrative captures the era’s juiciest scandals and wildest extravagances, but...the novel’s themes are sober ones: the double-edged power of telling our stories, the ways we test and punish those we love, and the psychic cost of life lived by the mantra "appearance matters most."
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) When a desperate Capote betrays his swans by publishing their darkest secrets, friendships crumble and hearts break.... Benjamin convincingly portrays a large cast of colorful historical figures while crafting a compelling, gossipy narrative with rich emotional depth. Highly recommended. —Mara Bandy, Champaign P.L., IL
Library Journal

Class, cliques, and cattiness converge in this New York fable based on the lives of Truman Capote and his greatest fan, Babe Paley....  Elegant Babe's thoughts, if not her lips, are unsealed at last.... [Readers get] a chance to judge whether a swan's muteness can be more interesting than her gripe.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The Swans all have very complicated relationships with one another—perhaps most notably, Slim and Pamela were both married to the same man. What ties these women together, despite their differences and the sometimes competitive nature of their friendships?

2. Truman is embraced wholeheartedly by the swans when he first appears on the New York social scene. What do you think draws them to him?

3. Discuss Babe's marriage with Bill. What are its strengths? What are its weaknesses?

4. What do you think of Truman's relationship with fame? At times, he seems willing to sacrifice almost anything (love, his health, and his friendships) in pursuit of the limelight. How does that serve him, ultimately?

5. Why do you think Truman published "La Cote Basque, 1965"? What point was he making about (or to) the story's subjects?

6. Truman and Babe were both heavily influenced by their mothers. In what ways were their childhood experiences similar? In what ways were they different?

7. Babe and her sisters were raised for successful marriages. Did they live up to their mother's hopes?

8. Pick three words to describe Truman and Babe's friendship. Or, pick one word to describe Truman, one to describe Babe, and one to describe their friendship.

9. Do you think Babe forgave Truman, in the end?

10. There are a number of stories told throughout the novel. What are some of the stories that you tell—about yourself or about others? In what ways do stories shape our experiences?

11. Who was your favorite character? Why?

12. Who surprised you the most? Why?

13. Aging is a prominent theme throughout the novel, as the opulent 50s come to an end and a new generation of socialites supplants the glamorous Swans. What did you think of that? How do you feel about getting older?

14. Discuss the significance of memory in this novel. In what ways do we distort our memories? What, if anything, is the significance of this?

15. Can you think of a woman who is the modern equivalent of Babe Paley and her circle of friends?

16. Babe always presents a very carefully composed face to the world. Only occasionally do we see that mask slip. Discuss those moments. Who is the real Babe, beneath the makeup and jewels?

17. How has the role of women in society shifted from the 1960s to today?

18. If you have read any of Melanie Benjamin's previous books, compare and contrast this work with her earlier novels. Is this story a departure? If so, in what ways? If not, how is it in keeping with her other writing?
(Questions from the author's website. Reproduced with permission.)

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