Midweek @ Musings: Edith Wharton’s brilliance … and a poll

I’m reading Edith Wharton this week; specifically, her novel The Custom of the Country.  My introduction to Wharton came several years ago, when I read her Pulitzer Prize winner, The Age of Innocence.  For some reason, I remember very little about it and based on recent experience, I really must re-read it someday.  In the past year I’ve enjoyed two other Wharton novels:

The Custom of the Country is like House of Mirth, in that both focus on New York society, and involve young female protagonists.  But where the latter has an air of desperation; The Custom of the Country is more satirical.  I love the way Wharton portrays her heroine, the beautiful but frivolous Undine Spragg:

Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative.  She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met, and the confusion of ideals thus produced caused her much perturbation when she had to choose between two courses. (p. 10)

And her description of “how things are done” among gentlemen of good breeding:

Nothing in the Dagonet and Marvell tradition was opposed to this desultory dabbling with life. For four or five generations it had been the rule of both houses that a young fellow should go to Columbia or Harvard, read law, and then lapse into more or less cultivated inaction.  The only essential was that he should live ‘like a gentleman’ — that is, with a tranquil disdain for mere money-getting, a passive openness to the finer sensations, one or two fixed principles as to the quality of wine, and an archaic probity that had not yet learned to distinguish between private and ‘business’ honour. (p. 41)

And finally, Wharton’s painfully accurate philosophy, delivering perhaps my favorite quote in the novel so far:

The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway-crossing.  (p. 123)

Isn’t that marvelous?  I’m within 100 pages of finishing this book, and I don’t want it to end.  Every time I sit down to read, I get through about 10 pages and then I have to set it aside, just to savor its brilliance.

Clearly I need to read more Edith Wharton, soon.  And this is where you come in.  I have three of her books on my shelves.  Which one should I read next?

I thought it would be fun to take a vote … thanks for playing!

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11 thoughts on “Midweek @ Musings: Edith Wharton’s brilliance … and a poll

  1. Ethan Frome! I have only read that and The Age of Innocence. Oh and “Roman Fever”, her story that appeared in the Persephone Biannually was outstanding!

    Of course, I’d have to vote for the one that ISN’T a VMC (just to be contrary!)

  2. I love Edith Wharton, and The Custom of the Country is my favorite. Finished Summer just a week or so ago (it was wonderful), but haven’t gotten around to reviewing it. A reread of Ethan Frome is next on the list, but I really need to read The Age of Innocence soon, too.

  3. My vote is for Summer.

    Last week, up at our family cabin, I found some notes that one of my college-age nieces or nephews left lying around. I picked it up and read out loud: “Archer meets Countess Olenska in the park.” My 16-year old son immediately said, “That’s The Age of Innocence.” I love these little indications of advancing literacy in my children!

  4. Thanks for the reminder that I need to read more Wharton…I’ve really loved most of her work. I voted you should read Summer…mainly because I haven’t read it and I want to see what you think of it 🙂

  5. I’ve got The Reef from the library right now but I fear I won’t get to it! I loved House of Mirth, so I’ll have to give Custom of the Country a try soon.

  6. I’m late to the party, but I just want to say YAY. Ethan Frome was my first Wharton, and it was just so beautiful. I’ve been apprehensive about picking up her other works as I’m still so shaken by Frome.

    Looking forward to reading about your Wharton journey. :]

    • Thanks Sasha! I’m happy to keep this party going for a while! I’ve been apprehensive about Frome, but the comments here are winning me over …

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