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.