Inspired in part by Irina Reyn’s (whom Claire McMillan thanks in the afterword) What Happened to Anna K, which transported Anna Karenina to modern day Brooklyn,Gilded Age transports Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart from The House of Mirth to modern day Cleveland. Why Cleveland? McMillan is a resident of the city (as am I!) and with descendants of iron and steel magnates walking the streets, it makes for the perfect setting.
McMillan’s tragic heroine, Ellie Hart (play on Lily Bart), returns to Cleveland from New York City after her much publicized marriage turns sour. Her filthy rich ex-husband dabbled in illegal substances and Ellie dabbled in other - often married - men, and a bitter divorce ensued. Ellie sees Cleveland as her second chance at love, respect and power, preferably with a wealthy husband by her side.
Ellie shifts her attention from one man to another, quickly finding another alternative if the first one does not pan out. She briefly flirts with P.G. Gryce, a boring naturalist with money oozing out of his pockets, before moving on to Randall Leforte, a flashy ambulance-chasing attorney. Leforte seems intent on matrimony, but Ellie loses interest and fancies herself in love with William Selden, whom she’s known since childhood.
Selden, as everyone calls him, is a college professor, an intellectual, and his own amorous pursuits parallel Ellie’s behavior. However, as a man, his antics are acceptable, while Ellie’s are gossiped about and deemed scandalous. Selden suffers no repercussions, while Ellie falls more and more on the social ladder, and more and more into alcohol, drugs and inappropriate relationships.