Basic synopsis: Laura is a young woman whose youthful indiscretion results in the birth of her daughter in the narrow-minded town where she grew up. It is 1928 and the birth provokes the loss of most of her seamstress business, though her sister Marie remains her faithful companion. Not far away, the poetess Edna St. Vincent Millay lives with her husband Eugen, giving wild, uninhibited parties and flaunting her bohemian lifestyle to the shock and horror of the townspeople. Though Laura tries to avoid Millay when she asks for a new wardrobe for her upcoming reading tour, with finances tight and her curiosity piqued, Laura succumbs and in the process learns more about herself than she'd dared.
Now for the truth: I wasn't at all sure I'd become a fan of this novel until I was more than halfway through. Laura's refusal to name her lover drove me crazy at first, knowing there would be a big, shocking reveal later that I assumed wouldn't be all that shocking (and I was so wrong on this count). But as the story moved along, Laura's morals and fortitude wore away at my hesitance; I found that not only did I like her, I also championed her because of her denial to give into the town bullies. Laura's deep love for her child is a constant throughout the story, and her growth, mostly at the behest of taking care of the child, elevates her character from sad pariah to determined architect of her own future. Laura's a part of me now, and for that alone I would give this book 5 solid stars.
The biggest issue I had with Fallen Beauty lies with the portrayal of Millay, though I assume it's a mostly factual telling. Millay is not a sympathetic character beyond the fact that she may have had some emotional disturbance. Her treatment of her long-suffering husband, her insistence on being the center of the universe, her complete disregard for how her actions impacted others all add up to a woman who, while brilliant, was not likable at all. I don't believe the author intended her to be so, however; I do think she wanted to show a side of Millay that, despite her selfish reasons, helped another to find her backbone. Other than that, I spent most of the novel wanting to slap Millay for her whims and utter narcissism, and if that was the aim of the author, she succeeded brilliantly.
Mostly, however, this story is Laura's: Her refusal to give in, her desperation to take care of her child, her sense of wonder which could never be completely extinguished. When the climax of the story is reached, it is gripping and emotionally impactful for all. I was taken in by the transformation of spirit and the accepting nature of Laura, which stood in contrast to the vapid Millay, who still provides Laura with the missing element of her life: forgiveness. This novel is well written and totally, wholly encompassing.