“Before the one percent, there was the four hundred…”

Brown Baggers met in person on Thursday, April 21 to discuss The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan. The book is a work of nonfiction about the Biltmore mansion located in Asheville, North Carolina – “the largest, grandest residence ever built in the United States.” Having recently read The Yellow House and The Dutch House, our group was ready to dive into more house-centric reading.

Similar to our other house stories, the palace takes on its own character. Our members’ initial reaction was a bit of shock, even disdain or disgust, at the opulence of the Biltmore and its people. Kiernan was critiqued within our group for writing extensively on the details about gowns and meals, but less substantially on most of the actual people living in the house. Others noted that the genealogy writing was tedious and there were far too many peripheral characters. The “name dropping” didn’t add to the story, similar to how including every single little bit of researched information didn’t contribute much, aside from legitimizing the subtitle: “the epic story…” Yes, this is an epic tale all right, and told in epic proportions. 

What we did enjoy was learning about the extensive planning needed to transform 125,000 acres of wilderness into a proper European-style estate, complete with its own chateau: the forestry, the landscape architecture. There is also the general intrigue that comes with reading a work of nonfiction. No matter how much you already know about a topic, there always seems to be more to learn. So while sometimes the facts and figures dragged, some stories were more captivating! One favorite example was the story of storing art at the Biltmore during WWII to ensure its safety during wartime. 

This was also a redemption story, with Edith at its center. We loved Edith, as she was the strong, forward-thinking woman, the one with all the brains, and the intelligent maneuvering to boot. In the end, Biltmore had a positive impact on Asheville, although it’s probably fairer and more accurate to say that Edith had a positive impact on Asheville. From promoting Asheville while traveling, to being a part of the wider community, and finding ways to stay true to her roots (she didn’t come from money). It was a happy ending to read about the good that came from the Biltmore, in the end.  

A few readers mentioned that the real treasure was reading this book before visiting the Biltmore. Perhaps a book club field trip is in order? Krista would be an amazing guide! 

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez on Thursday, May 19. Please email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Other books mentioned: 

Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe 

American Duchess: a novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt by Karen Harper 

A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Fowler 

The Gilded Age by Mark Twain An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Zijl

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