By Sue Botos
Author Claire McMillan describes herself as a “recovering attorney,” but she could also add “Cleveland Ambassador” to her resume.
The native of Pasadena, Calif., who now calls her husband’s family farm near Cleveland home, told an audience at the Rocky River Public Library that she saw the city as the perfect setting for her novel, “The Gilded Age,” an updated twist on “The House of Mirth” by her favorite author, Edith Wharton.
“Cleveland felt oddly familiar to me,” McMillan said, recalling her first reactions when her husband “imported” her to the area from California. She noted that she especially felt at home on the city’s east side. “Pasadena and Shaker Heights were built in the 1920s, and they look quite similar. My parents call Shaker Heights ‘Pasadena without palm trees,’” she stated.
McMillan recalled that the Rust Belt location for her novel raised some literary eyebrows. The novel tells the story of Eleanor “Ellie” Hart’s attempt to make a new life, returning to Cleveland society after a failed New York marriage and a stint in rehab.
“My agent and editor asked, ‘Why would she live in Cleveland?’” McMillan remembered. But she liked the irony of setting her book somewhere Edith Wharton would have considered unfashionable and lacking society when she wrote “House of Mirth” in 1905.
It was also the “boomerang effect,” or the habit of Clevelanders to eventually return home, that helped decide her character’s hometown. “It’s an ideal place for nesting,” she said, pointing out that on numerous occasions, she has noticed that people know each other through close-knit social and family circles.
“There’s something about being raised in Cleveland that brings you back,” she stated. She said that this comforting effect was something that she wanted to highlight through the character of Eleanor.
“People have really deep roots here. That’s what attracted me to write about the city,” she added.
McMillan also makes it a point to include familiar Cleveland references throughout her story. The Cleveland Museum of Art is the setting for a benefit event, where Ellie appears in a “scandalous” outfit; and another character runs into an old friend while admiring a Cowan pottery Jazz Bowl. She also weaves in some updated references, such as texting and sexting.
While her story intertwines familiar East Side locations, McMillan said she does “have contacts on the West Side.” Just like many people transplanted from elsewhere, McMillan said she was intrigued with “East Side/West Side” split.
“The Cuyahoga River is like the Berlin Wall,” she quipped. Although written more than 100 years after “The House of Mirth,” McMillan said there are parallels between society then and now, especially when it comes to the limiting roles of women.
A former attorney, McMillan said that although she is licensed to practice in Ohio, she will continue her literary career instead of law. “I was in litigation and I’m much happier writing books,” she stated. She added that she tries to write a little every day, but it can be a challenge with her young children.
Taking an outsider’s view, McMillan said she is struck by the fierce pride of Clevelanders, but noted that residents tend to run down the city more than most not born and raised here. She noted that cultural institutions such as the art museum and Cleveland orchestra are world class, although she admits to not being acquainted with them until she moved here.
“The sense of community is so warm and practical,” she stated.
In her unofficial role as city ambassador, McMillan said that some of her readers have had their interest piqued by reading her debut novel. “I heard from a librarian in Minnesota who is planning a trip to Cleveland because she was inspired by the book,” she stated.
McMillan’s California clan has also jumped on the Cleveland bandwagon. “All of my family that comes to visit from the West Coast are blown away,” she said.