I feel a bit like a broken record at the moment because the books I’ve been drawn to have been pure escapism. Escapism? In a lockdown? Groundbreaking. (All hail Miranda Priestly.) Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott fits into this category but I have zero shame because this book is great.
Fresh off the back of City of Girls, I wasn’t ready to leave the world of glamourous people and their fabulous lives. I bought Swan Song for boyfriend last year whilst he was reading a lot of Truman Capote. It’s been sitting on my shelf ever since so I thought now was the perfect time to pick it up.
Swan Song gets its name from literary icon Truman Capote’s inner circle of female friends, his ‘Swans’. Beautiful, wealthy and powerful, these women were New York’s elite socialites. Amongst them were Babe Paley, Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest and Lee Radziwill – basically the who’s who of their day. As a group they travelled the world, lunched in the most fashionable restaurants, and looked entirely fabulous (Google them, I’m obsessed). They also shared their innermost secrets and, perhaps unsurprisingly, gossip about one another.
Imagine the Swans’ horror when these secrets appeared in a piece written by Truman in Esquire magazine in 1975. In La Côte Basque 1965, Truman completely betrayed his friends by sharing their private lives through a thinly veiled fictionalisation. It was the beginning of his never-completed novel Answered Prayers. It was also the beginning of his dramatic fall from grace. His beloved Swans neither forgave or forgot. Rather, they punished him.
Swan Song shows other historical fiction how it’s done. It’s no surprise that it was Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019. It’s the perfect blend of fact and fiction that left me completely engrossed. It wasn’t a fast read for me but that was good as I felt like I could really sink into it. The timeline is non-linear and the perspective also moves between the characters. It’s easy to follow though and is an effective way of weaving together the narratives, demonstrating just how much their lives were entwined.
One of my favourite bits of this book was the way that it explored female friendships. Capote played the Swans off one another, and although they realized this, they couldn’t help but be sucked in. They wanted to be numero uno. Yet when his betrayal is revealed, they rally together. This is demonstrated in the fact that it’s written in the collective first-person plural. The Swans have a shared voice, evoking ancient storytelling and symbolising the strength of sisterhood. Of course, there’s jealousy and different loyalties but ultimately they have each other’s backs, which I think many women can relate to.
The book also delves into the blurred line between art and betrayal. The Swans all knew that Capote was a writer, so should they have seen this coming? He was riding high on his success of In Cold Blood where he used a real story to create a masterpiece after all. The dips into Capote’s sad childhood are told then retold, as he attempts to make the story better. I felt a strange mix of contempt and pity towards him as his destructive behavior gradually got worse later in life.
Swan Song is bittersweet, juicy and tantalising – you just want to find out more about every character.
If you want to buy Swan Song then you can get it here, or to get you in the mood you can listen to this playlist which is actually included in the back of the book. It’s been one of my working from home soundtracks!