Paula Cohen

"Gramercy Park"

(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel MAY 28, 2003)

Gramercy Park by Paula Cohen
“From Fifth Avenue, with its gleaming carriages and fine, new mansions, and its smell of money only lately won and not yet fully grasped by the minds of its makers, it is merely a healthy stretch of the leg to Gramercy Park.

There enclosed on four sides by a high, iron fence, a small oasis beckons the passerby: a graceful green rectangle of shady paths and wide, low benches scattered beneath trees thick with years. It is an odd sight: nature penned in amid a forest of brick and stone, and the innocent stranger might be tempted to pass through the black-barred gate, to spend a quiet hour in contemplation of such a wonder. But the gate is locked, and only the privileged few who live on the borders of the little park possess the key that will open it.”

Paula Cohen’s first novel, Gramercy Park, is a dramatic Cinderella-type love story of New York society in the 1890’s. It centers around Mario Alfieri, the famous operatic tenor in Europe and his love, Clara Adler, a nineteen year old orphan.

Mario has arrived in New York to sing during the opera season of 1894. The famous tenor will be in America for over a year, so he looks into renting a house for his stay. Mr. Upton, his real estate agent, has found the perfect home for Alfieri- “The late Mr. Slade’s house is admirably well built and wonderfully spacious, with absolutely everything Mr. Grau said you would require. Most important, of course, is the music room, which contains a superb grand piano, and even a small eighteenth-century pipe organ, which Mr. Slade had brought over from Germany and built into the walls.”

During the tour of the home, Mario comes across Clara, sleeping among the sheet-covered furniture of Slade’s home. He questions Clara and finds out that Henry Ogden Slade, the deceased owner of the home, and a well-known philanthropist, was Clara’s guardian. She and two of the servants were allowed to stay on at the house after Slade’s death. The trustee of Slade’s last will and testament was letting her stay on until the house was sold. This begins the relationship between the famous opera singer and the orphan who doesn’t recognize him.

Cohen has done a wonderful job of giving us a “love story with meat.” There are lots of nasty characters who want to ruin the relationship, and plot twists galore. She does a great job of fully echoing the life of New York society at the turn of the 20th century. I found myself forgetting all around me, and sinking into the life of the novel-- it was fun. Her descriptions are hypnotic in their quality and I think she artfully describes high society at it’s worst and at it’s best.

“Oh, the bustle and scurry! Sounds of bathwater running, bells ringing, silks rustling, fleet flying; the fragrances of flowers and soap and perfume mingling with the steamy smell of flounces being smoothed to perfection beneath flatirons, and the burnt smell of hair papers crackling around curling tongs; the flas and twinkle of precious stones on regal bosoms and white-gloved hands, the shimmer of gold and pearls in elegant ears…

Gleaming carriages and their no less gleaming horses stand ready, by a thousand front doors, to whisk le beau monde through a purple summer dusk to the opera house, where black-cloaked ushers stand solemnly at attention, and gilded doors swing wide to reveal two thousand red plush seats in a gold and crimson wonderland ablaze with a million lights.”

I don’t usually use so many quotes from a book in a review, but I felt I needed to, in order to give the full effect of Cohen’s writing style. Her prose is like music, in my opinion; I enjoyed the story, but the way this author writes is amazing. She can subtly change a mood from one chapter to the next just by descriptions. Paula Cohen is an avid opera fan; I can’t attest to knowing anything about opera, but her use of language in this novel must be like a perfect opera.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews

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Paula Cohen is a native New Yorker with an addiction to the opera and all things Victorian. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014