House of Mirth, The
This was a frustrating, disappointing and depressing novel, which, strangely enough, is not to say it was bad or even unenjoyable. Lily Bart is one of the most fickle and flighty protagonists I’ve ever encountered, but she and Wharton had me engaged for the entirety of the story. I was simultaneously annoyed and engrossed, which was not only a unique reading experience but also, I imagine, sort of the point.
Mirth was the first book I’ve read from this era and setting, the closest approximations being Fitzgerald (same locale, a generation later) or Stegner (same generation, the other side of the country). I’ve also read plenty of Dickens and Tolstoy, which were a little earlier in time and in completely different countries. Point being, just from a socio-historical perspective this was captivating and informative.
Out of all the novels I’ve read it most closely resembles Tolstoy in tone and theme; it was in many ways a condensed American version of Anna Karenina (see my review). Wharton, like Tolstoy, employs heavy critique of upper class hypocrisy and superficiality, and she does it with a serious, inexorable rhythm and a lovely ear for language. Her characters exchange meaningful glances and innuendo by the dozen, and whereas in Tolstoy (and Stegner) I more or less dismissed the technique as an exaggerated sense of the epic, here I began to wonder for the first time if people really did interact more meaningfully a century ago; if in the modern age we have just become such distracted simpletons that we can no longer imagine interpersonal communication with this level of subtlety.
The book also shares qualities with some of the lesser aspects of classic literature. Like Dickens (and in film, Almodovar), most of the dramatic tension could have been resolved by one or two candid conversations. While this was not necessarily unrealistic, it added to the frustration of the reading experience.
At other times there are various Shakespearean (and Dickensian) coincidences and contrivances to advance the plot. Lily constantly chances upon the most opportune or importune character possible, and these coincidences telescope towards the end — Lily happens to walk by Selden’s house right when she can most benefit from seeing him, then runs into Nettie in the park. And I don’t think it’s giving away too much to point out that the last chapter utilizes a fateful and sudden change of heart to set up a tension that echoes one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays (although I recognize that Wharton’s resolution is distinct and interesting).
There’s no other way to characterize the story itself than as a downer, being as it is a tale of Woman vs. “Society.” The decks are stacked and the results predictable. But I found the theme fascinating; the moral, emotional and spiritual impossibility of Lily’s situation was expertly rendered by Wharton. I would say her critique is more focused and explicit even than Tolstoy’s. And coming as it is from a woman around the turn of the 20th century, it’s actually revolutionary.
As for Wharton’s answer to the conflict, it’s annoying and disappointing that she seems to believe that Woman can only be saved from “Society” by Man’s Love. But you can’t reasonably blame her, given the historical context in which she wrote.
My only other annoyance was the fluid shift in perspective. I understand 3rd person omniscient, and while it’s not my favorite voice I frequently enjoy it. But I’m wholly unaccustomed to reading it as Wharton does it, where the perspective can shift abruptly between characters even in the same chapter, from one paragraph to the next. It was jarring and I prefer more warning with narrative switches. It’s a minor complaint overall.
Ultimately I came away from my first Wharton novel strongly impressed. Her command of language and character is remarkable, and her choice of theme resonates even today. Normally, that a book is frustrating indicates to me some greater flaw. Here, though, it seems like the reader is supposed to feel frustrated, that you feel it through your identification with Lily. My frustration is proof that Wharton did her job well, that she got me to care for her protagonist and aroused in me the same despair that finally (SPOILER. . . . . . . . . . )doomed Lily.
I’m next going to pick up Frank Norris’s McTeague, so I’m interested to compare his treatment of this era with Wharton’s.