Many years ago I read Ethan Frome and fell in love with Edith Wharton’s writing style. Last year I read and loved The Age of Innocence. Just recently I finished The House of Mirth and I have to say wow. Out of the three, this is my favorite. She has a few more books on my 1001 list so my favorite might change but I’m not sure how.
Here’s the Goodreads synopsis for The House of Mirth:
First published in 1905, The House of Mirth shocked the New York society it so deftly chronicles, portraying the moral, social, and economic restraints on a woman who dared to claim the privileges of marriage without assuming the responsibilities. Lily Bart, beautiful, witty, and sophisticated, is accepted by “old money” and courted by the growing tribe of nouveaux riches. But as she nears 30, her foothold becomes precarious; a poor girl with expensive tastes, she needs a husband to preserve her social standing and to maintain her life in the luxury she has come to expect. While many have sought her, something—fastidiousness or integrity—prevents her from making a “suitable” match.
Recently I review Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and I wrote that he really understands human nature. Wharton’s strength is her portrayal of society, especially from a woman’s point of view. The Secret Agent was difficult to read due the violent subject matter. The House of Mirth is difficult on a different level. It shows the difficulties of being a woman. The main character, Lily Bart, doesn’t always make the wisest choice. At times I cheered for her and other times I was cursing her decisions. However, Wharton deftly shows that the men in the novel could be just as foolish and yet they escape from their situations almost unscathed. Not so for Lily. The novel was published in 1905 and one may think that times have drastically changed. From my point of view they haven’t. Yes women have more rights. Yet, views of women haven’t changed that much. For instance a powerful man is viewed as successful. A powerful woman is more often than not labeled a bitch. If a man is promiscuous he’s considered a ladies’ man. If a woman is promiscuous, she’s a slut. I think you get my point.
I don’t mean to imply that reading this novel will make you want hit the streets and protest. Well you may. For me, though, I thought it was a beautiful story. I was on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen to Lily. I hoped for the best, but felt dread until the final page. It’s not a thriller by any means, but it hooked me. I finished the story over a week ago and have spent much time thinking about it. While I was reading it, I wasn’t focusing solely on the treatment of women. Since finishing it, I keep thinking of scenes and relating them to today. It’s depressing that things really haven’t changed all that much. I love books that linger and I have a suspicion that I’ll reread this novel again in the future. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Granted it’s not the most uplifting book, however, it’s such an insightful look into American society.
And I think I’ll stick with Wharton for at least one more book. Up next, a reread of Ethan Frome. I haven’t read this in over 20 years.
Sounds right up my alley! I love books that make you stop and think about society…. And if it can do that when it’s over 100 years old, then you know it’s a keeper.
I was amazed by how many similarities there are to today. And her writing is beautiful, insightful, and memorable. I hope you like it.
I’ve never read any Edith Wharton, though I’ve listened to and enjoyed some of her short stories. Reading your review, I think I need to make sure to read at least one of her novels!
I think you would enjoy her. She has a wonderful writing style and her descriptions of society life are illuminating.
i recently read age of innocence and picked up house of mirth at our library’s used book shop. i loved the one and look forward to the other. i read custom of the country years ago and don’t remember much of it. wharton was able to bring me to really care about her characters. even though there were a lot of people in the book, i was able to see and remember each one as an individual.
Yes, she has an ability of having lots of characters, but they all have their own personality, which helps immensely.
You’re making her writing sound much more pleasant than I remember. I think having to over-analyze Ethan Frome in high school really put me off her, but I have this one on my shelf along with Age of Innocence so I look forward to reading her with a fresh perspective.
I used to feel bad that my high school teachers really didn’t push us to over-analyze books. Now I think it’s a blessing since I don’t have those negative memories attached to certain authors.
You made me download The House of Mirth… never read anything by EW before, so let’s see how it goes. I shall report back in due course 😉
Can’t wait to hear what you think!
I remember another one, The Buccaneers – and you’re absolutely right: she is marvelously at capturing the society of her time; particularly the wealthy, and how women fit into that life. At least from the characters of The Buccaneers — this one sounds like maybe it is the other side of the coin. I really like her style; I’ll think I’ll have to add this one to my list this year too.
I’ve heard of the Buccaneers, but haven’t read it. Will add it to my list. I’m captivated by her writing and storytelling abilities. Her sarcasm is superbly done.
It sounds like a real commentary on society. Remarkable seeing as when it was written.
I would have loved to be in the rooms back when it was published to hear the people talk about her book. Scandalous!
Wharton is wonderful, but I also found the book kind of depressing. At least women can survive on their own now–it was a lot harder back then.
I agree, it is depressing. But I still had a hard time putting it down. And yes, woman can survive on their own for the most part. I won’t open the single mother can of worms
I too loved this book. Edith Wharton really makes you cheer for Lily in spite of her bad decisions at times. It is one of those books that sticks with you. She is a superb story teller.
And she makes some poor decisions, but I still liked Lily. We’ve all made stupid mistakes in life and I think that’s part of her point.
Don’t think I’ve ever heard of Edith Wharton before, but your review makes this book of hers sound stellar. Enjoy re-reading ETHAN FROME!
I started Frome last night and I finished it. Such a wonderful and sad book.
must read it now– thanks for the thoughtful review–
Hope you enjoy
I’m not much of a reader, but you sure give good review. I never saw the film adaptation of “The House of Mirth” starring Gillian Anderson, but I loved Martin Scorsese’s take on “The Age of Innocence” (but what do I know, never having read the book?). Are either of these film adaptations of Wharton novels on your movie list?
I saw Scorsese’s film years ago and I need to add it to my rental list. I haven’t seen Anderson’s Mirth. I should add that as well. I don’t think either are on my official list. At least I don’t remember seeing them on it and I’m a tad bit lazy this morning. Need another cup of tea to wake up and be more motivated.
I also really loved this book! I read it last year. I haven’t read Ethan Frome, but I read The Age of Innocence, which I also liked a great deal. I understand that The Custom of the Country sort of rounds out her treatment of Old New York – I plan to read it as well. Undine Spragg has been likened to Lily Bart, but with a happy ending. I have no idea if that is true – I read it somewhere (although I don’t know where).
I need to get The Custom of the Country since I’ve enjoy both this and Age. Her writing is almost hypnotic and sucks me in.
Although this might not be my kind of book…but I really like your review especially at the part where people see men and women differently….the powerful and bitch ones is so true.
It’s such a shame that the stereotype of successful woman hasn’t changed.
I’m totally with you on this one. Great review. Reading The House of Mirth made me sympathize with the plight that women had — even wealthy women. Before reading this book, I would have bought into the notion that these high society women had it made, but that was not always the case. Often they had no choice but to marry for money or be completely shunned from their social group, and it’s not like they had many other avenues to pursue.
This is one of my favorite quotes that I think sums up the character of Lily Bart: She [Lily] liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste.
It’s a wonderful quote. I love her writing, so many good lines and she paints a scene vividly in my mind.
This story really shows that women, even in the upper class, had a difficult time. I’m glad we have more rights now, but there are still way too many similarities for my liking.
And congrats. You must be happy about Man City
I had neaaaarrrrly given up hope that City would win the league. 🙂
We gave up hope that Liverpool would win after the Chelsea match. Then the Crystal Palace game was a disaster.
I’ve read this a couple of months ago and have still not reviewed it. I didn’t expect it to be like this. I was quite shocked. On the other hand, it’s so, so well written. Maybe I’ll review it an while.
I was surprised by the actual story as well. Didn’t expect that type of honesty about a woman’s place in 1905. She must have shocked a lot of people. Let me know if you review it, would love to know your thoughts.
You’ve piqued my interest in Ms. Wharton!