Review: The Woman Before Wallis

Title:  The Woman Before Wallis

Author:  Bryn Turnbull

Publisher:  Mira Books

Pub Date:  7/21/2020

How Acquired:  Edelweiss

Synopsis: Before Edward, Prince of Wales famously abdicated his throne for American divorcee Wallis Simpson, he loved another American woman: Thelma Morgan Furness, sister to the first Gloria Vanderbilt. This is her story.

The daughters of an American diplomat, Thelma and Gloria Morgan were stars of New York social scene in the early 1920s, dubbed “the magnificent Morgans.” Both would marry into wealth and privilege beyond their imaginations, Gloria to Reggie Vanderbilt, and Thelma to a viscount. Thelma begins an affair with Edward, the dashing Prince of Wales, that will last nearly five years.

Then, in 1934, Thelma's life is upended by her sister Gloria's custody trial — a headline-grabbing drama known as The Matter of Vanderbilt, which dominates global news for months and raises the bar for tabloid sensationalism. Back in New York, sued by members of her late husband's family on charges of negligence, unfit parenting and homosexuality, Gloria needs her twin's support more than ever. But as her sister gains international notoriety, Thelma fears that her own fall from grace might not be far behind.

My thoughts: I was interested to read this novel because I thought this was an interesting take on the whole Wallis Simpson/Edward VIII story that we have seen so many times in both fiction and non-fiction. I first learned about Thelma and her relationship with the Prince of Wales from watching Edward & Mrs. Simpson (by far the best TV/film version of the story ever done) and then reading Barbara Goldsmith's Little Gloria Happy at Last.

There were many things that I liked about this novel, the writing is superb, but I didn't find Thelma as compelling a character compared to her sister Gloria, Nada Milford-Haven or even Wallis. She seemed curiously passive. Things happened to her for the most part. Marmaduke Furness sort of falls into her lap in Paris, the same with the Prince of Wales. Even Aly Khan shows up when she's feeling a bit down.

The book shifts between 1934 when she arrives in New York for the custody trial between her sister and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and scenes from her earlier life starting with her divorce from her 1st husband. This keeps the time frame relatively tight but I felt that story lacked something because we don't really get to see her early years with her mother and father growing up in Europe.

I found it easy to put the book down at times, it wasn't compelling enough for me. And I found that the author pulled her punches a bit with the relationship between the Prince of Wales and Thelma. There was nothing in the book about how she once pushed him around in a pram.

I think that this book will be devoured by readers who either don't know enough about the Prince of Wales or who are interested in the time period.


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