Glimpse into tony world of antiques

The heroine of Karin Tanabe’s latest novel, young Carolyn Everett, wasn’t born grasping a Tiffany rattle, but she grew up in the guesthouse on the grounds of one of the toniest estates in Newport, Rhode Island. After graduating from Princeton, she continues her association with the super-rich by landing a job at Christie’s in New York, handling high-priced collections of American furniture. Carolyn is so passionate about her new position that she considers tattooing her forearm with a Chippendale drop-leaf dining table. To impress clients, she wears an imported perfume made from ground-up global currencies so that she will literally smell like money.

But at the height of her career, Carolyn makes a pricey error and gets fired. She leaves behind her upper-crust boyfriend and Manhattan apartment and returns to Newport. Once there, she resumes her relationship with her ritzy childhood friends and takes a low-paying job buying and selling antiques. At a local auction, she purchases a Middle Eastern bowl for $20 that may be worth a mint, and while investigating its provenance, she meets Tyler, a pretty-boy Marine who might be involved in an international art scandal.

The Price of Inheritance is most enthralling when Carolyn is wheeling and dealing antiques. She’s a barracuda in her little black dress. But when she moves back to Newport and takes up with Tyler, the narrative loses some of its appeal. Tyler’s function in the novel is to serve as a salt-of-the-earth influence on a woman who has always mingled with the moneyed classes. Unfortunately, he comes across as brutish and a shade too low-brow. Would someone as savvy as Carolyn would fall for such a caveman, despite his much-described six-pack abs?

The author, daughter of former The Washington Post’s Book World art director Francis Tanabe, spends many pages speculating about the bowl that Carolyn acquires, but, in the end, its mystery may compel only people with a keen interest in ancient pottery. Most of us would probably be happier with less attention to ceramics and more emphasis on characterization. Carolyn’s skimpily drawn wealthy friends loll about in sailing attire, looking down their patrician noses at the lesser classes. Her new boss never quite comes to life, and her ex-boyfriend is a garden-variety cad. (During a make-out session, he asks Carolyn to lick the leather seats of his Porsche Carrera.)

Still, readers will find plenty to savor in The Price of Inheritance. Tanabe demonstrates an extensive knowledge of the high-end furniture world, from the claw-and-ball feet of an antique chair to the pearl inlay of a Queen Anne end table. Carolyn is also a winning character with a quick wit, and the opulent environs she inhabits are definitely worth a visit.

Karin Gillespie reviewed this book for The Washington Post.