An American Beauty: A Novel of the Gilded Age, by Shana Abé — A Review

From the desk of Jayda Justus:

The true tale of a woman who fought her way to the top in the Gilded Age.


In post-war Richmond, Virginia, times are tough and food is scarce. Arabella Yarrington is a scrappy young woman forced to work in a den of gamblers to put food on the table for her widowed mother and siblings. Her beauty attracts the attention of a wealthy railroad magnate from New York, Collis P. Huntington. He is captivated by Arabella’s poise and she is attracted to his charm, leading to an affair that provides Arabella and her family a way out of their despair.

Collis moves Arabella and her family to New York City where they live in the finest of houses and have servants at their beck and call, a far cry from their hand-to-mouth existence in Richmond. Arabella becomes Collis’ mistress, a title that may bring her riches but doesn’t give her the independence she craves. She uses her wiles to make strategic investments in property around the city, ensuring that her family will have a secure and guaranteed future.

As the years go by, Arabella becomes enmeshed in Collis’ life, giving him the son he wanted while dealing with the jealous hatred oozing from his wife and daughter. No one is surprised when Collis marries Arabella upon his first wife’s death, but that does not guarantee acceptance by the aristocratic society mavens who rule New York’s Gilded Age. Can Arabella use her cunning intellect and strong will to claw her way to the top even with the constant threat of her past coming to light and a forbidden love pulling her down?


The Strength of a Woman

I was captivated from the beginning with this true tale of survival, especially living in Richmond, Virginia myself. I could smell the charred ruins of the city and feel the hunger pains of its citizens in Abé’s descriptions. We often forget about the years after the Civil War and how it took the decimated cities decades to rebuild.

Sheer Determination & Pluck

The love story between Arabella and Collis is real, and while forbidden, they both found something in each other that was missing in their lives. Arabella was looked down upon as the “other woman,” but as a young girl of seventeen who was responsible for her mother and four siblings, I understood that she had no choice but to go with this older man who promised a life free from hunger and want. Through sheer determination, she pulled her entire family out of abject poverty, a huge burden for her young shoulders. I admire her pluck and ingenuity in her horrific circumstances.

Relationships are Legacies

Arabella’s true delight in motherhood was refreshing in a time where nannies raised children of the wealthy, and I thought her relationships with her mother and siblings were real and believable. I liked the way Abé redeemed her relationship with Collis’ daughter by his first wife and how she described the true kindness Arabella displayed to this heartbroken young girl. Her relationship with Collis’ nephew was portrayed skillfully even though it was fraught with uncertainty. Every family is strange in their own way, and the Huntingtons were no exception!

Abstain from Googling

Abé’s writing flows beautifully and is propulsive, making this a page turner even though I knew the outcome. I don’t recommend Googling anything about Arabella Huntington until you’re done with the book – you don’t want to spoil it! After seeing all that Arabella made of her life, I am amazed at the lingering legacy she left for us to enjoy even to this day.

Added Insights

I always love when the author has a personal connection to the story, so don’t miss the author’s note at the end describing Abé’s decades-long interest in the Huntington family.

5 out of 5 Stars


♥ HBO’s The Gilded Age 

♥ True rags-to-riches stories with self-made strong women 

♥ Books where women use the resources they have available to find a way to survive

♥ Stories with family at the heart


  • An American Beauty: A Novel of the Gilded Age, by Shana Abé
  • Kensington Books (April 25, 2023)
  • Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (384) pages
  • ISBN: 978-1496739421
  • Genre: Historical Fiction


We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Cover image courtesy of Kensington Books © 2023; text Jayda Justus © 2023,, an Amazon affiliate.

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2 thoughts on “An American Beauty: A Novel of the Gilded Age, by Shana Abé — A Review

Add yours

  1. Thanks for sharing your lovey review, Jayda. What a fascinatingly woman. I have visited The Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, CA many times, so to put the life on Arabella on paper was a thrill for me.


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