This summer I went on a bit of an Edith Wharton binge after being stuck on a journey without a book and finding a collection of her complete works on Kindle. I think by now I’ve made my way through all the novels and most of the novellas, but I’ve still got thousands of pages of stories, poetry and non-fiction ahead of me. This is my favourite author after all. Which means I will read EVERYTHING by her. Eventually.
So here’s the 2014 addition to the Wharton bookshelf. Now somebody just needs to go and publish shiny editions of all her books. Folio Society, I’m looking at you.
Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton
There are three things Edith Wharton does incredibly well. Social satire, the bleakness of poverty and ill-fated romance. This Finding Mr Wrong story is a very glum mix of the three, a tale of two sisters – the older a bit of a self-proclaimed martyr sacrificing her own happiness for her sibling, the younger a bit on the naive and selfish side – getting tangled up in a love triangle with a man who will ruin them both. Set in a hot, lonely and oppressive New York, this novella is a very quick and very depressing read. Usually Wharton’s bleaker stories are lifted up a bit by a loveable quality in one or two of the characters, but this one really makes it difficult to feel for anyone – and yet the sense of loneliness and despair she evokes here leave you feeling sorry for humanity overall.
Pens: 4 out of 5
Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
I’m not a big fan of the Jazz Age novel but, this being Wharton, I enjoyed it more than some others I’ve come across. Twilight Sleep focuses on a family at the centre of New York’s upper class trying to escape the boredom of their empty, privileged lives through any means possible. Money, sex, drugs, restless socialising, ‘spiritual healing’, work… Every single one of their escapes feels remarkably familiar today. Needless to say, the whole family façade starts to crumble soon enough – this is Wharton dealing with hear favourite topic after all, dissecting the phony world of the super rich. This one is maybe less emotionally engaging than her ‘big three’ New York social satires (The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence and The Custom of the Country), but makes up by showing even more bite on the satire front.
Pens: 3 out of 5
The Glimpses of the Moon
Oh, this is wonderful! What a great set-up, to start with. Two young social climbers who really should marry for money decide to marry each other for love and live on a deadline until their money runs out, vowing to set each other free for the pursuit of a better match. Now, of course you can’t think or act this reasonably when there’s love involved. And knowing Wharton and having had my heart forever broken by The House of Mirth, I literally read the whole book in fear of the inevitable, devastating blow of fate. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found that this story is basically Wharton going back to Lily and Selden twenty years later to give them a second chance. I know it’s a different story and different characters, but to me it read that way and I laughed and cried (and jumped up from the sofa a few times) over the closure this book has given me for another book. And even if you’re not as obsessively living inside Edith Wharton’s books as I tend to, this is still a damn sweet love story with a good pinch of satire.
Pens: 5 out of 5
Sanctuary by Edith Wharton
Many of Wharton’s novels and stories have aged well over the past century (and more), and despite the settings and cast appearing old-fashioned, her themes rarely feel dated. In that regard, Sanctuary is a bit of a weird one, feeling incredibly old and classic. A woman marries a man knowing he is despicable and spends the rest of her life fighting against the seeds of despicableness he may or may not have planted in their son. The nature vs nurture theme shouldn’t feel this dated, but the degree to which her protagonist obsesses about honour and morality left me with little patience and empathy for her dilemma. I usually find in Wharton’s writing a wonderful balance between old-fashioned language and modern ideas, but this novella just doesn’t get there.
Pens: 2 out of 5
Summer by Edith Wharton
A girl in a remote New England village, a nobody with no future other than marrying her foster father and becoming an obedient housewife, has her life turned upside down by a visitor to her world. A young man from the city, with an education, opens her eyes to the world and her mind to the alternatives that life might offer her. Soon she rebels against her old life and its choices, but being naive and ignorant (if not by nature then at least by nurture), she finds herself sorely misled, deceived and dumped back into the pits she tried to escape from. This coming-of-age story jumps back and forth between elation and despair, but of course this is Wharton making a point about women’s lives and choices, so prepare to be utterly frustrated by the outcome. In between hating and loving and hating this book, it reminded why it was this woman, writing more than a hundred years ago, who first turned me into a feminist when I discovered her work as a teenager.
Pens: 4 out of 5