One of our recommended books is The Second Mrs. Astor by Shana Abé


A Novel of the Titanic

In 1910, Jack Astor was one of the richest men in the world. Madeleine Force was a beautiful teenaged debutante suddenly thrust into fame simply for falling in love with a famous man nearly three decades her senior. From their scandalous courtship to their catastrophic honeymoon aboard the Titanic—a tragedy that transformed a pregnant Madeleine into the American Princess Diana of her time—their love story is brought to life in this captivating work of historical fiction by New York Times bestselling novelist Shana Abé…

Madeleine Force is just seventeen when she attracts the attention of John Jacob “Jack” Astor.

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In 1910, Jack Astor was one of the richest men in the world. Madeleine Force was a beautiful teenaged debutante suddenly thrust into fame simply for falling in love with a famous man nearly three decades her senior. From their scandalous courtship to their catastrophic honeymoon aboard the Titanic—a tragedy that transformed a pregnant Madeleine into the American Princess Diana of her time—their love story is brought to life in this captivating work of historical fiction by New York Times bestselling novelist Shana Abé…

Madeleine Force is just seventeen when she attracts the attention of John Jacob “Jack” Astor. Jack is dashing and industrious—a hero of the Spanish-American war, an inventor, and a canny businessman. Despite their twenty-nine-year age difference and the infamy of Jack’s recent divorce, Madeleine falls headlong into love—and becomes the press’s favorite target.

Marrying after a yearlong courtship that’s constantly in the tabloids, the couple flees to Egypt for an extended honeymoon. There they finally find a measure of peace from photographers and journalists, and they only decide to return in the spring of 1912, when Madeleine is five months pregnant. They book their trip home aboard an opulent new ocean liner: the RMS Titanic

Four months later, at the Astors’ Fifth Avenue mansion, a widowed Madeleine gives birth to their son. In the wake of the disaster, the press has elevated her to the status of virtuous, tragic heroine. But Madeleine’s most important decision still lies ahead: whether to accept the role assigned to her, or carve out her own remarkable path.

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  • Kensington Books
  • Paperback
  • August 2021
  • 336 Pages
  • 9781496732040

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About Shana Abé

Shana Abé is the author of The Second Mrs. AstorShana Abé is the award-winning, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of more than a dozen novels. She lives in the mountains of Colorado.

Author Website


“Abé is an exquisite storyteller, gracefully transporting the reader from Newport to Egypt to the cold seas of the Atlantic.” —Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Lions of Fifth Avenue

“A gorgeous, phenomenal novel.” —Ellen Marie Wiseman, New York Times bestselling Author of The Orphan Collector

“Through Madeleine, we see a young woman fall in love with America’s wealthiest man, the society scandal that follows, a level of media intrusion not dissimilar to that endured by a young Princess Diana, and, of course, the tragic events that unfold during Titanic’s maiden voyage…A touching, compelling, and haunting love story that will delight fans of historical fiction and enthrall those of us for whom the Titanic will always fascinate.” —Hazel Gaynor, New York Times bestselling author of When We Were Young and Brave

The Second Mrs. Astor is an engaging novel told with both heartbreaking care and vivid detail. Shana Abé introduces us to the extraordinary Madeleine Astor and her profound love for the enigmatic and famous Jack Astor. Abé’s intimate prose brings to life a fascinating and heartbreaking piece of history. A harrowing and yet ultimately hopeful tale of survival and courage, fate and love, and the ultimate question of who do we become after great loss. The Second Mrs. Astor is historical fiction at its gripping and irresistible best.” —Patti Callahan, New York Times bestselling author of Surviving Savannah and Becoming Mrs. Lewis

Discussion Questions

1. At the beginning of the story, Madeleine is a sheltered seventeen-year-old socialite who has just graduated from finishing school. By the end of the novel, just two years later, her world is radically different. Do you think she handled the transition from relative obscurity to fame well? What would you have done differently?

2. Jack Astor was a man far more complex than the press portrayed, yet he was still incredibly wealthy, powerful, and renowned. Was he walking a morally ambiguous line by courting a teenaged girl nearly thirty years his junior? Do you believe he actually loved her, or was it just libido? Does the time period help excuse the age difference between them?

3. Their wedding ceremony took place just over a month after their engagement was publicly announced. Were Madeleine and Jack right to insist upon a swift, small wedding, instead of the huge social blowout that was more typical of their time and station? Do you think the primary motivator behind it all was their growing love for each other, or more a fear of the escalating scandal?

4. Madeleine’s relationship with the press evolves over the course of the story. Do you think how she was treated by them was justified?

5. As Titanic was sinking, no one in the Astor party had any way of knowing that Lifeboat Four was going to be one of the last to leave the ship. Should Madeleine have argued more forcibly to stay with Jack once it was clear he would not be allowed in the lifeboat? Or was she right to leave him behind?

6. Madeleine’s interaction with Vincent was contentious from the beginning. As his future stepmother, should she have tried harder to befriend him? Or do you think it was always a hopeless cause?

7. Did Madeleine’s grief force her to grow as a human being, as a soul, or did she perhaps shrink? Or both?



June 1907
Newport, Rhode Island
The first time she saw him, she was essentially invisible: thirteen years old, a schoolgirl on holiday, her hair dripping from the sea, sleek wet mermaid curls clinging to her arms and back. She was nestled, legs tucked under her, in the coarse silvery sand of Bailey’s Beach, her ruffled cap tossed beside her. Her nose was tingling hot and she didn’t care, because it was breezy and warm, and the sun was a high glorious pinpoint, and if it were ladylike in the least to stretch out all the way in her bathing costume to make a sand angel, she would have.
But Madeleine was not five; she was thirteen. And as it was just after eleven in the morning—the hour that only ladies were welcome to swim in the red algae-choked waves—Mother was bobbing nearby. She was always nearby. Maddy’s removal of her cap was transgression enough.
Gulls screamed and darted overhead. Madeleine lifted her chin and followed their loose circles, ragged-tipped wings, dragon shadows dipping and spinning against the sky.
A gaggle of girls a few years younger than she stood shrieking at the shoreline, kicking froth and sand at each other, too timid to venture all the way in but too aware of their bare shins and feet to resist the cool water. They were nearly louder than the birds.
Like Madeleine and every other female on the beach, the girls wore black. Black bathing bloomers, black shirtwaists with fat blossoming sleeves, everything from their necks to their knees down to the bones of their wrists thoroughly concealed. It was as though each and every summer noon, the exclusive strand of Bailey’s Beach became haunted by covens of fashionable, water-soaked witches.
A pair of carefully plodding bays hauled a carriage past the long arabesques of seaweed that marked the tideline, stopping at the very last stretch of dry sand. Blue-liveried footmen leapt free of the carriage; large, mysterious bundles were liberated from their leather straps in the back. Maddy twisted to watch as the men—who weren’t technically allowed on the beach right now, but they were only servants, so that was all right—swiftly erected a saffron-striped tent, complete with rug, wicker chair, and folding table, and then returned to the carriage to assist a solitary lady down to the sand.
She was white-haired, stooped. She squinted crossly at the sudden hard light but was so quickly guided inside the tent that Maddy barely had time to take note of the glimmer of jet beading on her dress and the garnet brooch pinned to her bosom. As soon as the lady was seated, a wind-tousled maid began unpacking a hamper for her meal.
“Ha,” breathed a voice in Maddy’s ear, accompanied by the sound of a body dropping down onto the grit beside her.
Madeleine darted a look at her older sister (grinning and capless and somehow not at all sun-scorched), then looked back at the saffron-tent woman.
“Are you not awed?” Katherine drawled, leaning back on her arms, examining nothing but the unflagging sea rolling in before them. “Are you not suitably cowed?”
“Should I be?” Maddy asked.
“Yes, you certainly should be, little girl. That is Mrs. Astor. The Mrs. Astor. Dare to stare her in the eyes and you’ll turn into stone. Or is it burst into a pillar of flame? No, wait! You’ll be struck from the social register and die a shriveled old maid.” She gave an exaggerated shudder, still grinning. “The horror!”
Madeleine knew, of course, who Mrs. Astor was. Everyone knew. It was just that she had never seen her in person before; the Forces and the Astors didn’t move in the same social circles. Maddy had always imagined the matriarch of the venerable Knickerbocker set as a woman grown wiry and vicious and strong, with a smile of sharpened daggers and the fingernails of a warlord.
Not this. Not this stout, elderly creature who shied from the sun and had her lobster cut into cubes for her by her maid on her gilded china plate.
“And who is that?” Maddy asked, tilting her head toward the hatted man who was crossing the sand in long, leggy strides toward the tent. (He was definitely not a servant, but no one stopped him.)
“Ah,” replied her sister, in a tone of both confidentiality and superiority. She flicked a strand of drying kelp from her thigh.
That, my dear, is her son, the colonel.”
Oh, Maddy thought.
He was comely. She’d heard that he was, but only through school gossip, and comely in schoolgirl parlance might as well mean not so drippy-nosed, or not quite yet bald, or not so fat as his horse.
But Colonel John Jacob Astor, gentleman, inventor, and war hero, was comely, in an older, hawkish sort of way, rather like her father . . . but on second thought, not at all, because the colonel was fair as her father was gray, mustachioed as her father was not; fit and tall as . . . well, as only himself. Because he moved so quickly, she only just managed to get a good look at him, but what she noticed—what she would remember for the rest of her life from those few warm breezy seconds on that rough Rhode Island beach—was that he was smiling as he walked toward his mother. That he was easily conquering the sand, graceful and determined. And that, for the smallest inclination of a moment, he turned his head and caught her eyes and noticed her, there on the sand not so far off.
And then, for an instant, he was smiling at her.
It was as though a dart of light from the summer sun had pierced Madeleine’s heart. A dart, sweet and wonderful and terrible, right through her heart.
Then he was gone, swallowed by the interior of the tent. Someone untied the flap of the entrance and it fluttered closed, and then there was only saffron and white, and the gulls still calling out overhead.
“Maddy,” said her sister, placing a hand on her arm. “You look so queer. Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Madeleine said. She sat up straight, wiped a hand across her brow. She licked her lips and tasted salt and sand, relentless, pervasive in her every crease and pore. “Right as rain.”


Q&A with Shana Abé

What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?

Without question, it was having to deal with the crushing amount of confusing and often contradictory information about Titanic, its passengers, and its crew, that exists today.

Take, for example, Madeleine’s age. Newspaper articles at the time of her engagement claimed that she was anywhere from seventeen to twenty-one. I suspect some of that confusion arose from deliberate disinformation given to the press from the Astor coterie, which seemed acutely attuned to the blowback surrounding the age difference between Jack and Madeleine.

Another example: there were conflicting stories published about what the Astors actually did aboard Titanic after the iceberg had been struck. Some of it, no doubt, may be attributed to the panic of that night, and people perhaps seeing what they wanted to see. But some of it was likely just strangers attempting to profit off the Astor name by including Jack and Madeleine in their own personal narratives, in an effort to boost the newspapers’ payment for their stories.

It took a massive amount of reverse-engineering this crazy mishmash of information to distinguish truths from half-truths, and from outright fiction masquerading as truth. In some instances, however, all I could do was take my best guess. If it’s not one-hundred percent entirely what happened, it’s very close.

Was it emotionally traumatizing writing about the deaths of actual people?

 There were definitely moments when I was affected by the awareness that the people I included in my story were real. They were living and breathing and moving through their lives, guided by their own personal hopes and dreams, just as we are today. It was especially poignant researching their lives before they stepped foot on Titanic, because so many of them, so many, were going to die terrible deaths.

It’s like that feeling you get when reading Romeo and Juliet. You already know the ending, but you’re caught up in the unfolding tragedy anyway. And as you’re following the story, you think, if only this tiny moment were changed, or that one; the ending would be different. But it’s never different, because the facts of the past are immutable. Everyone knows what happened to Titanic. Shedding light on the lives lost that night, on the dreams lost, still doesn’t change the ending, but it does offer a fuller glimpse into the consequences of the calamity.

What would you like your readers to know about Madeleine?

 Madeleine Force Astor was, in the end, simply a young woman of her time and place, born into moderate wealth, raised to be clever and attractive and to have no ambitions beyond marrying well and raising a family of her own. However, she also happened to be a sheltered teenager who was courted by, and fell in love with, a rich and powerful older man. It’s doubtful she or anyone else could have predicted the widespread fallout that would occur over her relationship with Jack; the constant public scrutiny and disapproval, the open fawning and the snubs. I tend to think of her as an ordinary girl ensnared in extraordinary circumstances, from start to finish, and that is how I attempted to portray her.

Did the foundering of the Zingara and subsequent rescue of her men actually happen? It seems too coincidental to be real.

 It did happen. When I first stumbled across the fact that Madeleine and Jack had saved a group of sailors from their damaged sloop yacht sinking in the Atlantic eight months before Titanic’s sinking, I actually got a chill. The newspaper report of it had a cheerful, congratulatory tone not only regarding the actions of the crew of the Noma, but also for Jack and Madeleine themselves, engaged but not yet wed, and still hiding out at sea to avoid the press. Madeleine was especially hailed as a heroine, allegedly cheering on the rescue by calling out encouragement and afterwards serving hot coffee and sandwiches to the Zingara crew.

She was also quoted as saying that she’d never seen a rescue at sea before, but that she would never forget it.

What was the strangest thing you discovered during your research?

 I found out that I am friends with someone whose first job out of graduate school had her working with the daughter of Carlos and Katherine Hurd, the reporters aboard the Carpathia who interviewed the Titanic survivors.

So I personally know someone who knew someone who knew someone who at least tried to talk to Madeleine Astor in the immediate days after Titanic went down.

(I put an imagined conversation between Madeleine and Katherine Hurd in the story, based on the facts I learned via the archives of the Missouri Historical Society, which has Katherine Hurd’s collection of papers and notes.)

The truth behind the Hurds’ account is actually legendary in journalistic circles, and well worth discovering. Carlos and Katherine, legitimate passengers aboard the Carpathia, went to extraordinary lengths to ensure their complete, informed interviews with Titanic’s survivors would be published before anyone else could do so.

At that point, Carlos was already a well-established journalist who just happened to be aboard. When he awoke early in the morning of April 15th, wondering why the ship’s engines had stopped, it didn’t take him long to realize he was about to bear witness to the story of the century.

Captain Arthur Rostron, in his desire to control the official narrative (and also to protect the privacy of the survivors of Titanic, especially the widows), did his best to stop him. Rostron really did hide away all of the ship’s stationery from the Hurds, forcing them to write on any kind of paper they could find, including toilet paper. He also forbad any manner of wireless communication from Carlos and Katherine to or from anyone else. He had their cabin searched for their notes by the cleaning stewards; eventually when the stewards would come, Katherine began to remain in the room with them, sitting atop her notes in a chair.

Captain Rostron, a man of honor and steel, was just doing his job. However, so was Carlos Hurd. As the Carpathia surged into port in New York, Carlos, struggling against a burly pair of seamen attempting stop him, tossed his handwritten story—wrapped in waterproof material, concealed in a cigar box that was covered in champagne corks so it would float if it accidentally fell into the sea—off the side of the Carpathia as she moved toward shore. The box was caught by a fellow journalist from his own newspaper group on a waiting tugboat, and the Hurd story allegedly became the initial firsthand, accurate account of what had really happened aboard Titanic that final night. Hurd’s scoop was being frantically edited and wired to newspapers even as Titanic’s survivors began to stagger off the Cunard ship at last, headed back to the safety of shore.


A Note to Readers from Shana Abé

Dear Reader,

Madeleine Force is only eighteen when she weds Colonel John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest man in America, recently divorced and nearly thirty years her senior. Their unlikely courtship consumes the masses; their names and faces sell newspapers around the world. Through this sharp lens of public scrutiny, Jack and Madeleine’s relationship slowly blossoms, transforming from mutual infatuation into love. But this is a haunted love story, one drenched in both devotion and loss. After an extended honeymoon in Egypt, the Astors decide to return to New York on the maiden voyage of the most sophisticated ocean liner in the world. Their universe is golden: they’re privileged, protected, deeply in love, and in four short months are due to welcome their first child. What could go wrong?

The more I learned about Madeleine Astor, the more my sympathy and respect for her grew. Here was a sheltered, turn-of-the-century teenager abruptly thrust into an unrelenting spotlight, someone who was watched and scorned and admired by millions simply because of the man she fell in love with. History has often consigned her as a victim: of an older man’s attentions, of the unforgiving rules of the society she sought to join. But I think Madeleine was a hero. She fought for her love and her marriage, and she survived not only the death of her husband but the slurs his people tossed at her. This was a pregnant woman who barely escaped a sinking ship, yet who literally rowed back for the survivors.

I hope you find her story as fascinating as I did. If you’d like to share your thoughts about it online, please hashtag #TheSecondMrsAstor so I’ll know! Thank you!