Reading Group Guide: Gilded Age

Gilded Age

Claire McMillan

Reading Group


Cleveland, like many rust belt cities at the dawn of the twentieth century, was an industrial juggernaut fueled by coal, steel, and shipping on the Great Lakes. The wealth from this commerce set up a society of leading civic families. Generations later, these original family names are still Cleveland’s elite, bonded together through an unspoken code of behavior and a web of interwoven relationships. When failed iconoclast Ellie Hart returns to her hometown after divorce and scandal, she challenges this cosseted group’s priorities, morals, and expectations. In this modern retelling of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, feminism, friendship, and the unwritten laws of society are braided together and showcased in this beautifully descriptive, inquisitive novel about a woman trying to change her fate.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

  1. In parts of this novel, there is first-person narration from an unnamed woman: a wife, friend, and mother-to-be. In other parts there is a third-person narrator. Did you prefer one style of narration to the other? Did you have any questions about the narrator that were left unanswered?
  2. Do you like and trust the narrator of the novel? Is she always honest with herself and others? What do you think motivates her?
  3. How much of an impact do the judgments and actions of the narrator have on how you feel about the people and events she describes? Does she like her friends?
  4. Is Ellie a feminist? What are her views on marriage and being a wife? Do they sync with her actions? Did you relate to any of her sentiments?
  5. Do you think every social group, every society, has “victims” and “victors”? Did society hurt Ellie, or did she hurt herself?
  6. Ellie says to Selden, “Passion is fine…What I really want is freedom.” Is she being genuine when she says this? Does she want freedom consistently through the novel? If you could give Ellie one piece of advice, what would it be?
  7. What mistakes does Ellie make? Do you feel sympathetic to her situation? How does her social circle judge her?
  8. Why does Ellie resist Randall Leforte’s advances and reject his proposal? Why does she find him so cringe-worthy, when in fact he is both handsome and wealthy?
  9. When Selden binds Ellie’s wrist with her ribbon, and she wears it, what does it mean to him? To her? Are they bound together through anything more than sexual attraction?
  10. The narrator says, when chiding herself for not calling Ellie to check in, “Funny that with a friend that old I’d need to gin myself up to call her.” What does it say about their friendship? Have you ever felt that way about a friend?
  11. Do you think that the narrator’s friendship with Ellie would have persevered if Ellie hadn’t betrayed her trust?
  12. What do you think could have saved Ellie?
  13. If you’ve read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, how does this modernized version compare?
  14. Consider the title, Gilded Age, now that you’ve finished the novel. Has the meaning changed in any way?

Enhance Your Book Club

  1. A scene in the book describes a benefit at the Cleveland Museum of Art where select members dress up and pose as famous pieces of art. What pieces of art would you and the other members of your book club best embody? Discuss with your group.
  2. Read aloud the first chapter from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth at your book club. Compare and contrast Claire McMillan’s updated version in chapter two of Gilded Age

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