Readers at Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan., are eagerly stepping into Edith Wharton's Gilded Age, ushered there by store founder and president Vivien Jennings and her staff. Jennings began talking up Jennie Fields's The Age of Desire (Pamela Dorman/Viking, 9780670023684, $27.95) before it was even available and took the unusual step of promoting the novel pre-publication in the store's newsletter, which typically is reserved for author events and recent releases.
Rainy Day has sold more than 100 copies of The Age of Desire since it was released early last month. In the novel, Fields tells how Wharton's clandestine, middle-age love affair with a dashing younger journalist threatened to destroy her decades-long friendship with Anna Bahlmann, her governess turned literary secretary.
Jennings said she realized she had something special in her hands almost from the moment she began reading The Age of Desire, which she consumed in a single sitting, and knew it would appeal to various types of readers, including those who enjoyed The Paris Wife by Paula McLain and fans of the PBS show Downton Abbey. Husband-and-wife book club members have been another audience for the novel. "The male characters are interesting, which makes it a book that both men and women can read," said Jennings.
When Jennings speaks with customers about The Age of Desire, it helps that many already are familiar with Wharton, having read her books or seen film adaptations of them. A selling point enticing potential purchasers is that the novelist's real life intertwined with her fiction. Many people who purchased Fields's novel have called and stopped by specifically to thank her for recommending it.
The Age of Desire is currently displayed in Jennings's staff picks section as well as on the front counter near the registers, featured along with The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty. Readers of the latter, a top seller at Rainy Day since it was published in June, are also intrigued by The Age of Desire. Moriarty offers a fictionalized account of Louise Brooks and the woman who accompanied the 15-year-old, future silent-film star to New York City to study dance in 1922. "Both books have two very interesting women characters: a famous person who is fascinating and also a secondary character unknown in history but equally captivating and strong," Jennings noted.
While in Paris on business, Jennie Fields, then an advertising creative director, returned to her hotel after strolling along the street where Wharton used to live. Waiting for her was a message from her agent, who coincidentally was calling to suggest that Fields make Wharton the subject of her next book. Fields's first novel, Lily Beach, is a tribute of sorts to Lily Bart, the heroine in The House of Mirth, her favorite Wharton tale.
"There was so much serendipity that went into my writing of The Age of Desire," said Fields. A piece of good fortune was a late-night, insomnia-induced online search leading to the discovery that Christie's was planning that week to sell a cache of correspondence written by Wharton to Anna Bahlmann. Fields received permission from the auction house to read the letters before they went to the highest bidder and drew on them for the novel.
Fields kicked off her tour for The Age of Desire at the Mount, Wharton's home in Lenox, Mass. Situated in the Berkshire Mountains, the château-like abode--masterminded from the ground up by its mistress--is featured in "The Custom of the Country," a multi-page spread in this month's issue of Vogue.
At Warwick's in La Jolla, Calif., buyer Adrian Newell was another early supporter of The Age of Desire. "I especially loved the way the novel humanized a literary icon--interesting that the highs and lows of love are always the same--and illustrated the difficulties of being a woman, rich or poor, in that particular era," she said. "I came away with a deeper understanding of Edith, both as a woman and an author."
At Westwinds Bookshop in Duxbury, Mass., staffers tussled over an advance copy of The Age of Desire, while Parnassus Books in Nashville has selected the novel for its First Editions Club. Fields relocated to the Tennessee city three years ago. After inking a contract to write the book, she quit her advertising job and made the move to be with her husband; for 10 years the couple had commuted back and forth between New York City and Nashville.
Upcoming appearances for Fields include the Omaha Public Library today as part of a community-wide read of Wharton's The Age of Innocence; the Nashville Public Library (September 20) with Irene Goldman-Price, editor of My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann; the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville (October 13); and the Boston Book Festival (October 27).
A recent event at the St. Louis County Library received such an enthusiastic response it was moved to a larger venue. "Everywhere I've gone there have been great crowds. It's very exciting," said Fields. "This whole experience for me has been a gift. Thank you, Edith." --Shannon McKenna Schmidt