Where Fiction Meets Life: A Trip to the Breakers

Photo belongs to Lilia Shen

Lilia Shen, Managing Editor 

If I’m remembering correctly, the Vanderbilts called it the “Breakers” because when you stand on the balcony, looking over the cliff the mansion is nestled on, you can hear the sound of the ocean waves breaking on the stone walls in the distance. The sound is reminiscent of glass shattering into a million pieces. As I stand on the main balcony of the house and listen to the water’s restless affections, I consider the idea that this is where the Vanderbilts’ financial secretary, Alvin Goddard, was tossed overboard, murdered.

That’s not exactly how the story goes. The main balcony of the house is a wide expanse and feels more like a deck than anything, and the sprawling vastness of the lawn beneath me is too close. Too close to be fatal. I have to rethink. It happened from higher up, from one of the balconies off the upstairs bedrooms. Actually, he might’ve already been dead even when his body was sailing through the air. But seeing how lofty the mansion was, how dangerously high the balconies were from the tallest bedrooms, I couldn’t help but re-imagine Goddard’s story.

I was only in the very beginning of my years in high school when I spotted the maroon shelf on wheels, standing off to the side in the cafeteria. $1 per book, the tattered sign read. On the top shelf, there was a metal money box with a slit in the lid where people could slide in their dollars or drop in their coins. My fourteen-year-old self put in a $5 bill and sat down in front of the shelf to begin looking for the five books I wanted to take home. One of those books was Murder at the Breakers by Alyssa Maxwell.

Photo from Amazon

When I visited the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island last year over spring break, I was only a year younger than Emma Cross, the protagonist of the novel. She’s the 21-year-old second cousin of Cornelius Vanderbilt as well as a reporter for The Newport Observer, and that’s enough to earn her a spot on the exclusive guest list of a grand ball at the Breakers Cornelius is throwing for his daughter.

As I walk through each of the rooms in the mansion, I imagine the luxurious scenes of the ball. The grand staircase in the stately entryway is carpeted in deep red velvet, and guests move up and down between the ground floor and the loft above, men in their smoothest suits and women in their glittering evening gowns. There are waiters with slender flutes of fine champagne going around. Instead of the monotonous voice of the guided audio tour, I can hear the buzz of light-hearted, pompous chatter between the guests and the sound of the fountain bubbling beneath the staircase. Was this what Emma saw when she walked into the Breakers in 1895 for Cornelius’s grand ball? I read the book so long ago the exact details are lost to me, but the story still comes to life so effortlessly as I make my way through the house.

Breakers Music Room. Photo by Lilia Shen

I step into the music room of the Breakers, which has dark blue marbled walls, gilded with gold accents that traverse up to the painted ceiling. The glass chandeliers with their drooping diamonds like the limbs of a weeping willow hang low, every one of its candles lit, casting the room into a warm golden glow. A grand piano sits in the corner by the windows so its player can stare out onto the vast green grounds of the property. I wonder what they would’ve listened to back then. 1895 would’ve been the tail end of the romantic era of composers. Perhaps Chopin or Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn.

The music cuts off abruptly when I get up to the bedrooms. There’s a moment of quiet, like a held breath, before it happens. A body hitting the floor. A body being tossed over the balcony. A body raining down on the guests that were outdoors in the lukewarm summer evening. And then, the chaos. The police arriving to arrest Brady, Emma’s brother, the only other person in the room at the time of the murder. I remembered my fourteen-year-old self, so enraptured with the disbelief that something so tragic could happen in a setting so beautiful. I saw it in that upstairs bedroom with the embroidered curtains, the intricate carvings in the wood furniture, and the beautifully paneled walls—the tragedy overlaying what I had thought was untouchable beauty. I couldn’t look away. Emma couldn’t either, convinced that her brother wasn’t the one who had committed such a heinous crime, and she was determined to get to the bottom of this.

“But here I am, and here is Emma at the Beakers, reminding me that I hold an incomprehensible amount of power in my own hands.”

I never thought when I read the book all those years ago that I would actually get to come to the Breakers and meet Emma. In a sense, at least. Back then, I admired her unapologetic nature. I wished that I could’ve been like her. Not the shy, quiet, fearful young girl I actually was. Seeing the place where Emma’s story unfolded, I was fondly reminded of that—of how far not just Emma, but I had come. If you had told my fourteen-year-old self that I would be the managing editor of a literary magazine, that I would be putting my writing out there like this, I wouldn’t have thought myself capable. But here I am, and here is Emma at the Breakers, reminding me that I hold an incomprehensible amount of power in my own hands.

I won’t tell you the ending, because that’s Emma’s job. I can only tell you that there’s something special about stories told on the scaffolds of real places. They cannot hide from their rightful settings. They come to life like film reels superimposed on whatever real life structure they were originally imagined on. The characters glide around like ghosts, leaving no traces or footsteps, as they live out their stories. These places are a meeting ground for reality and fiction to coexist. But you have to know where to look to find that extra layer. It’s like magic. You can only see it if you know it’s there.

2 thoughts on “Where Fiction Meets Life: A Trip to the Breakers

  1. Dear Lilia, I’m so incredibly honored by this post, so touched that Emma could in any way have inspired you. Like you, there was a time when I quaked at the thought of someone reading my writing. And like you, I overcame my fears and insecurities with the realization that being a writer was too important to let my fears rule me. By the way, I’m a graduate of Uconn with a BA in English, so in a way it feels like this article brings me full circle back to my literary roots. Thank you so much. I wish you much success!

    1. Dear Alyssa,

      Oh my gosh, when I wrote this blog post, I never imagined that you of all people would be reading it. Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement; I’m absolutely glowing at them. I will definitely remember this moment as I continue down my own literary career. It’s amazing that your literary roots started at UConn as well; it really makes this meeting feel like fate. Again, thank you so much for reading and I’m so glad you enjoyed!

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