Classics Circuit Review: The Reef, by Edith Wharton

Hello!  Thanks for stopping by; I have a special treat for you today.  Allow me to introduce you to Edith.  Yes, Edith Wharton.  She just dropped in as part of her whirlwind blog tour with The Classics Circuit. In fact, this amazing woman can manage being in two places at once — she’s also with Eva at A Striped Armchair today!

Last May I had the pleasure of visiting The Mount, Edith Wharton’s estate in Massachusetts.  I went with a group of friends, and we had a marvelous time.  Unlike other estate properties, The Mount is a “work in progress” — many of the rooms are restored, but unfurnished.  Wharton herself was the mastermind behind the house and gardens (she co-authored The Decoration of Houses in 1897, and was an authority on European landscape design).  She was also a serious animal lover; a quiet spot in the gardens serves as a pet cemetery.  For a photo tour, check out The Mount‘s galleries of the estate and gardens.  If you ever find yourself in the Berkshires, I highly recommend a tour of The Mount !

So anyway.  Edith and I have been chatting about books, architecture, gardening, and dogs.  It turns out she doesn’t go anywhere without her dogs.  Luckily

Mitou, Miza, and Nicette

I have some soft pillows for them to sit on.  Maybe later they can run outside and play with my Labrador retrievers, Lily and Woody.

Today I’ll be reviewing Wharton’s novel, The Reef, which takes place primarily at Givré, a French country estate.  A few days ago, Amanda at The Zen Leaf wrote, “Wharton’s prose is nearly as flowery and too-descriptive in this novella as it is in her novels, and that gets really tedious to me. My mind always wanders as she spends pages describing architecture or design or nature.”  The Reef is indeed flowery, but as Wharton described Givré, it seemed she was re-creating The Mount and its gardens in France.  Having been there, I quite enjoyed this aspect of the novel.

And now, without further ado, my review:

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Anna Leath is an American living in France and recently widowed, with an adult stepson (Owen) and a young daughter (Effie).  On a visit to London she meets up with George Darrow, rekindling a romance from many years before.  George agrees to visit Anna at her country house Givré, but just as he is preparing to cross the Channel he receives a terse communication delaying the visit.  He continues on to Paris anyway, befriending a young woman named Sophy and enjoying a couple of weeks in her company.  When he finally visits Anna a few months later, he is surprised to find Sophy employed as Effie’s governess.  Having already professed his love and commitment to Anna, he decides to keep his dalliance with Sophy a secret.

The novel revolves around the fragile nature of trust and intimacy, and social norms that inhibit expression. It’s clear that George adores Anna:

They dined late, and facing her across the table, with its low lights and flowers, he felt an extraordinary pleasure in seeing her again in evening dress, and in letting his eyes dwell on the proud shy set of her head, the way her dark hair clasped it, and the girlish thinness of her neck above the slight swell of her breast. His imagination was struck by the quality of reticence in her beauty. (p.127)

Meanwhile he gave himself up once more to the joy of Anna’s presence. They had not been alone together for two long days, and he had the lover’s sense that he had forgotten, or at least underestimated, the strength of the spell she cast. Once more her eyes and her smile seemed to bound his world. He felt that her light would always move with him as the sunset moves before a ship at sea. (p. 220)

Anna, too, is sure of her feelings, but completely unable to express them, expecting George to pick up on nonverbal cues and initiate all dialogue about their relationship.  Even when Anna learns the truth about George and Sophy — as the reader knows she will — she is completely unable to work it out in an adult fashion.  She wants to give George the benefit of the doubt and initially believes his explanations, but when they are apart, even for a few minutes, doubt sets in.  Anna repeatedly shies away from confrontation, putting off the conversation that must take place for their relationship to continue.

The reader knows Anna is capable of deep feeling and expression:  early in the novel, she shows tremendous excitement when Owen returns from an afternoon away.  It’s frustrating to watch her mis-handle the one relationship that will bring lifelong happiness.  Fortunately, the scenery is idyllic.  Edith Wharton brings France, her adopted country, to life, taking the reader up and down Paris streets, and on long walks through country chateau gardens.  She breaks the emotional tension with well-placed humor.  For example, consider this description of Adelaide Painter, a friend of Anna’s mother-in-law:

After living, as he had, as they all had, for the last few days, in an atmosphere perpetually tremulous with echoes and implications, it was restful and fortifying merely to walk into the big blank area of Miss Painter’s mind, so vacuous for all its accumulated items, so echoless for all its vacuity. (p. 212)

Reading The Reef, it was easy to get frustrated with Anna, waffling over her commitment to George.  And I was fairly sympathetic to George:  he was no saint, but his fling with Sophy occurred before he’d reunited with Anna, and at a point where he thought she had rejected him.  And while I longed for Anna to be stronger and more assertive, her inhibitions were not unfamiliar to me. The Reef is an excellent period piece in its scenery, characterizations, and portrayal of relationships between men and women.

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The Reef will also be reviewed by Athyrium felix-femina (The Lady Fern) on January 17.

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13 thoughts on “Classics Circuit Review: The Reef, by Edith Wharton

  1. I too enjoy the period setting of Wharton. But I’ve only read her New York setting ones, so this sounds like an interesting change!

    Thanks for joining the Circuit!

  2. You are so lucky to have visited The Mount! It is definitely on my list of places to visit. I was able to visit Pearl S. Buck’s home in PA last year and that was just wonderful. I hope to read The Reef soon, I’ve heard it’s among her best.

  3. Now that sounds wonderful. Relatively simple, but the kind of thing Edith Wharton does so well. Clearly I must track down a copy. And may Briar come and play with the dogs? She gets on well with Labrador retrievers!

  4. Isn’t The Mount gorgeous? We spent a day there last summer, and I’d love to see it again. Have enjoyed every Wharton I’ve read so far… it sounds like I should add The Reef to my list.

  5. @Rebecca: yes, one thing I liked about this book was its setting in France. EW spent a great deal of time there and reportedly also had an affair with an American living in France (hmmm … wonder if he was anything like George Darrow in The Reef?)

    @Fleur: I’m sure Lily & Woody would love playing with Briar!

    @Eva: thank you! It was fun sharing the day with you, too.

    @Karen, JoAnn: The Mount is great, and very deserving of public support so they can continue their restoration work.

    Thanks to all of you for stopping by today!

  6. So jealous that you got to visit the Mount! I would love to go there one day.

    The Reef sounds excellent. The plot oddly sounds a bit like a shorter version of The Wings of the Dove by Henry James.

  7. Great review! I loved the information on The Mount, how cool that you got to visit. I’m reading Hermione Lee’s bio of Wharton and just finished the chapter about Wharton building and decorating and creating The Mounts gardens.

  8. @dailywordsandacts: thanks for your comment! Wharton was a great admirer of James … could imitation be the sincerest form of flattery?

    @Stefanie: I was not aware of the Hermione Lee bio — that sounds very interesting and I’m going to make a note of it!

  9. It’s fun to see that we had slightly different takes on the book – but I did find all the waffling annoying! I think I was actually more sympathetic to Anna than George, but at the end I’m not sure.

  10. You have convinced me to be sure to read this one soon, since it’s still one of my un-read Whartons.

    I wish we still lived out east so that we could make a trip to see “The Mount”!

  11. I would so love to take a trip to The Mount one day! I adore Edith Wharton.

    I really want to read The Reef – I heard it read on the radio a while back, but I missed the last few installments. I need to get hold of a copy from the library! GREAT review!

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