Abe, Shana. The Second Mrs. Astor: A Heartbreaking Historical Novel of the Titanic. Kensington Books, 2021. 336 pp. ISBN 978-1-4967-3204-0. $16.95
My Mt. Everest obsession is rivaled only by the the Titanic disaster. This historical novel with romantic elements covers the courtship of business magnate, inventor, war veteran, and millionaire John Jacobs Astor IV with a socialite nearly thirty years his junior, a year after his divorce from first wife Ava. Madeleine Force first notices him on a Bar Harbor beach when she is a young teen, and four years later, catches his eye. Society is abuzz and her mother dubbed La Force Majeure as she tries to position her daughter to wed the colonel. They announce their engagement just after she turns eighteen in some effort to avoid scandal. Their wedding in the ballroom of Astors Newport mansion makes the society pages and amps up early twentieth century paparazzi. They escape to Egypt and then onto Europe for an extended honeymoon, and then the newly pregnant couple book passage to New York on the brand spanking new unsinkable ship of dreams: RMS Titanic.
The carefully constructed narrative moves back and forth in time and tense, opening shortly after the famous disaster at sea. The premise is that Madeleine is sharing the story of her and Jack’s love directly to her newborn son Jakey in first person, complete with occasional strike-throughs as she controls the narrative. The story then switches to third person, observational style. It’s amazingly well done, as is the writing. Even as the reader knows the inevitability of the staggering loss to come, the book is unputdownable. The vocabulary is rich with details of travel, food, fashion, and other trappings of Edwardian society. Madeleine’s close relationships with her parents and sister, and her antagonistic one with step-son Vincent, who is her age and does not approve of his father’s new wife, are deep, emotional and nuanced.
The research is meticulous; descriptions of the ship, the timeline of events, and the aftermath are drawn from primary sources. Much has been made of the end of Astor’s life: his devotion to his wife and her delicate condition, his promise to find her after, his assistance and kindness in his last hours. Madeleine chooses to be kind over everything else, with consistency. Themes of wealth, fame, and the role of women are beautifully integrated, and the marriage is presented as a love match, with chaste but sensual details. Though they never exchange “I love yous,” Madeleine and Jack do confess their love for one another.
This is a wonderfully romantic and tragic read for anyone caught up in Jack and Rose’s epic love story from the 1997 award-winning film Titanic directed by James Cameron, remastered and back in theatres this Valentine’s Day for its 25th anniversary.