Wednesday, 21 November 2007

The House of Mirth

My first novel by Edith Wharton. I'm not sure if The House of Mirth is a good place to start with this author but that was all the library had so that was where I started.



I'd decided to read this slowly and savour it because sometimes I read books far too quickly and can hardly remember anything about them a few weeks later. Sadly, the book had other ideas. I got so wrapped up in the dramas of Lily Bart's life that I ended up not being able to put it down.

Briefly, this is a book about a girl, orphaned at nineteen, after her father has lost all his money. Up to then she's been used to the best of everything and moved among the higher echelons of society. The setting is turn of the century New York. Almost penniless she goes to live with a rich but boring aunt who allows her some money but not enough to keep Lily in the style to which she's become accustomed. She gets into debt. Being a very beautiful woman the obvious answer is to marry a rich man and she isn't short of offers, but always falls at the last hurdle, whether from integrity or stupidity isn't clear. She makes some grave mistakes and because the majority of her rich friends are shallow and selfish, she pays for them, even though the mistakes are not always entirely her fault. And it's also clear that one particular 'friend' has got it in for her and is setting her up for a fall...

I won't say any more as there are twists and turns that would spoil it for others. I will say that this is not a particularly 'happy' read - quite frustrating at times in fact - but it is compulsive reading. You feel that Lily is on some roller-coaster ride and is about to fall off if she's not careful, (and she isn't!) I suppose the story is a warning to all about the dangers of mixing in high society; the rich are rich for a reason and it's isn't usually much to do with being kind and charitable. For me though it was more about the nature of friendship - why it is that some people have a need to be accepted by the worst kind of people? When push comes to shove who can you 'really' rely on to help you when you're down and out? Fascinating stuff and I thoroughly enjoyed this very readable but quite sad book.

I will definitely be reading more Edith Wharton but am not sure what. It depends on what the library turns up or what I can see in charity shops. The Buccaneers and The Children appeal but I really need to do some investigating about her other novels first.

9 comments:

Eloise said...

Edith Wharton is a writer I have always meant to get round to as well; this sounds like a really good read.

Tara said...

I enjoyed The Buccaneers - I believe that was my first Wharton. I also enjoyed Custom of the Country. House of Mirth certainly is not a happy read, is it??

Cath said...

Eloise: Same here with Edith Wharton. I'd read many of her ghost stories in anthologies of course, but not tried her novels. I wish I had now and will definitely be reading more.

Tara: Noooo, House of Mirth is not a happy read but quite enthralling. There's this obsession to keep reading because you think that things can't get any worse for Lily... I'm still thinking about this story several days after finishing it.
I've noted your recs and will try to get hold of those, particularly The Buccaneers which I believe was made into a TV series, though I didn't see it.

Tara said...

Yes, The Buccaneers was on TV here sometime in the 90s and I really enjoyed it. I'm not sure if it was an American or British production - though I tend to suspect British.

Elaine said...

The Buccaneers was left unfinished when Wharton died so any endings have now been written by others. May I recommend The Age of Innocence? Also The Reef and then the Custome of the Country. She has written lots of superb short stories as well, but please don't read Ethan Frome unless you are feeling bright and cheerful that day. Wonderful though it is, the story is bleak and harsh. All those superb reads ahead of you. I am envious.

Cath said...

Hi Elaine. I had didn't realise that about The Buccaneers, thanks for telling me. Yes, I will pick up The Age of Innocence. I've been slightly put off because of a couple of recent reviews where people have not liked it. Which is silly because that has no bearing on whether I'll like it or not. And I'll bear in mind your advie about Ethan Frome. LOL.

Here's a link to an article about the end of The House of Mirth that someone sent me. You may have to cut and paste because I don't know how links work on Blogger.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/21/books/21wharton.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&ei=5087&em&en=cad1c9b679aa7230&ex=1195794000

Cath said...

Elaine: well that didn't work. Let's try this:

Edith Wharton article

3M said...

Ethan Frome is a quick read and very thought-provoking.

Cath said...

Thanks, 3M, I'm certainly going to read Ethan Frome, depressing or not I tend to like books that are thought provoking.