Paula Cohen's bio on the back cover of her debut novel states that she is a native New Yorker who loves opera and all things Victorian. Taking to heart the old adage, "write what you know," she does exactly that. Her first novel, GRAMERCY PARK, is set --- quite rightly --- in Gramercy Park, New York City, in the year 1894. Miss Clara Adler, the young Jewish ward of the extremely wealthy financier, Henry Ogden Slade, has been left penniless according to her benefactor's will. Already, the story begins with a mystery. The New York socialites are stunned that the adoring old man would leave Clara destitute. The reader knows that there must be something amiss, but it is only the beginning of a twisted and sordid tale.
GRAMERCY PARK gets off to a slow start. Cohen's writing seems fragmented at first, giving the impression that she is new to this. However, the more complex the story becomes, so does her writing, and she is often very poetic in her observations of characters and their surroundings.
The sweet Miss Adler cannot be left poor and lonely for long. That would not be true to Victorian form. And so enters the dashing Italian tenor, Mario Alfieri, finding the fragile figure of Clara curled up in an armchair in her late guardian's home. She is recovering from an illness and, of course, strikes the chord in Alfieri that will make him renounce his old, debauched way of life. Their courtship is brief. Alfieri, determined to save her from a life of poverty and loneliness and probable marriage to the odious attorney Thaddeus Chadwick, claims her for his own.
Every Victorian romance must have its villain, and Thaddeus Chadwick is supremely vile. However, he is also intelligent and manipulative. His entire plan is foiled when Alfieri weds Clara, and his revenge is the primary force that drives the plot. Soon, he enlists the help of the pretty but corpulent Lucinda Pratt, who has her own motives for vengeance. They make a wicked pair.
While Clara and Mario are enjoying their newlywed state, in and out of the bedroom, Thaddeus is plotting. Armed with his knowledge of Clara's dark past, he seeks to destroy the bliss the couple have so recently found. Mario sets off on his American tour, but Thaddeus and Lucinda are on their trail, and Clara's past is about to catch up with her --- and it is a sordid one indeed. The seemingly innocuous Victorian romance becomes a dark thriller and a definite page turner.
Paula Cohen's style is somewhat along the line of the ubiquitous Victorian author Charles Dickens. Her characters are very full and burst from the page. Like Dickens's characters, hers are haunted by the past, and in the end, there is the compulsory tragedy that turns the whole story around to its inevitable happy ending. However, getting to that end is an entertaining and twisted ride.
Reviewed by Lorretta Ruggiero on February 5, 2003