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Warning: spoilers ahead!

I just finished listening to The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, our April book, yesterday. I have mixed feelings. I think Wharton is a wonderful writer. She excels at creating characters and building their lives, and she clearly has a keen sense of how the society in which she grew up functions. But I never seem to walk away from her books totally satisfied. (Yes, I realize this may be intentional on Wharton’s part, but it doesn’t make her books sit any better with me!)

I understand that Lily is out of options — at least, options she recognizes as such. She has no money, no prospects, no real chances of marriage. She feels she has failed completely. But I’m not sure I believe Lily meant to overdose, at least not consciously. Why, then, did Wharton make that overdose fatal? Is she making a statement about the toxic effects of high society? Is it what she feels Lily deserves for not being able to make anything of herself? Is it the most humane way to end Lily’s suffering? Or is it what Lily herself secretly desires but cannot openly admit?

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (cover)I remember feeling discontent like this after finishing both Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence. Wharton never ends her stories the way I want them to end — even if, perhaps, the ending she chooses is the “correct” one. I’m starting to feel like I have to approach her books warily, to guard myself against the courses she follows. I find her stories fascinating and so well written, yet I don’t feel like I can completely abandon myself to them.

Anyway. Back to the story. I said in my discussion post that I liked Selden. Well, that certainly changed. What a wuss. My affection and respect for him just kept dropping as the story moved forward. I don’t want to say “serves him right” that he couldn’t have what he finally realized he wanted…but it sort of does. Rosedale, on the other hand, almost redeemed himself a little. Almost. And I did have to respect Lily for the fact that, even though she was so helpless, she tried her best to stick to her principles and keep a bit of her dignity. After the final chapter, though, I was left feeling like there wasn’t anyone in the book I really, truly liked enough to continue caring about, even though I enjoyed it intellectually.

I thought Wharton did a great job portraying the society in which Lily was raised. The contrast between the beginning of the book and the end was so sharp in part, I think, because of how well Wharton painted the former. I could really understand how plain and lowly Lily’s life had become because I had been so steeped in its former glory. At the same time, though, I’d not want to live among those people for anything! So cold and calculating, never spontaneous, every move plotted in advance to produce a particular effect. So frivolous and devoid of real meaning.

Overall, I still feel like Wharton’s novels are masterfully written and worth reading. I’m happy to have read this third novel by her. I still can’t count her among my favorite authors, though.

If you’ve read The House of Mirth, what did you think? And if you posted about it for Reading Buddies on your own site, please share the link in the comments!

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  1. I think I agree with you about the endings of Wharton’s books, Erin… They are the ‘correct’ ones, but not the ones I would like to see. Although I do think hers reflect real life better. As you say, she is a great writer who can describe characters and culture as if you know them in person or as if you live there yourself, and that of course is enough reason in itself to read her books, although it doesn’t necessarily implies that she is a favourite author.
    I do want to read some more books by her, especially The Age of Innocence.

    1. I’m glad you sort of feel the same, Nadine. I feel a little heretical saying such a thing of a beloved author like Wharton! But I do think appreciation and love are two different things. I absolutely appreciate Wharton’s novels, even if I don’t adore them. I’d like to reread Age of Innocence — it’s been a while. If my hazy recollections are correct, it was my favorite of the three of hers I’ve read.

  2. I am intrigued by your viewpoint on this one. I had never before considered the fact that the overdose might have been accidental. I clearly need to read this one again and see what I make of that scene. I can’t help but agree with you that this book left me feeling a tad wanting as well. Have you read Ethan Frome?

    1. Hmm, maybe I missed something? I don’t remember there being a definite moment where any sort of decision was made. It seemed to me that if it was intentional, it was so at a level below Lily’s conscious awareness. Ethan Frome was actually my introduction to Wharton…took me a while to pick up another of hers! I don’t remember the book well, only that I didn’t like it nearly as much as I’d hoped to.

  3. I agree with you completely about the unsatisfying ending! I liked the book quite a bit up until the end, but things almost working out is a pet peeve of mine and the conclusion made me much less happy about the whole novel.

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