THE HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book'em.....take our poll!

(September 15, 2005)For this year's "summer classic, attendance optional" title, Book-'Em chose Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Set in 19th century New York Society, this is the story of the hapless, 29-year-old Lily Bart. Although beautiful, charming and accomplished in the requisite social graces, Lily is an impoverished orphan living on tenuous means with a socially proper and prosperous but frugal aunt described by Wharton as a "looker on in life." It has been Lily's ten year quest to find the wealthy, pedigreed husband who will insure her deserved and protected position in this world of the idle, peripatetic, self-absorbed social register. But time is running out.

The society world was one that Edith Wharton knew well and could have reigned over: Wharton was a "Jones" of the original "keeping up with the Joneses." But Wharton turned her considerable intellect and spirit on this class of "irresponsible pleasure seekers." An early feminist, many of her novels would decry the restraints and pressures at the hands of this elite class, particularly on its women.

Lily moves season to season to fashionable locations and house parties at the largesse of wealthy and powerful benefactresses. Increasingly, and often by her own missteps, Lily is shoved to the periphery of this world. The House of Mirth has no fairy tale ending.

Many of our group described the novel as a difficult read. The formal, out-dated writing style was uncomfortable for some. The sense of foreboding and pessimism bothered others. But despite this degree of difficulty people liked the book.

Lily is clearly the author's "heroine" yet she is not a character that we felt any sympathy for. The ultimate blame for her eventual situation in life resides with the society she lives in, but we felt that Lily brings on much of her own misery. While Wharton's female characters were thought to be "feistier" than the men by one reader, all of the men and women we met on these pages were "ugly," "boring," or "not nice." Astutely, one of our group reflected that the concept of empathy clearly did not exist among this class; the author may have conveyed this by encouraging our reaction to these dislikable characters.

We also discussed the stereotyping and anti-Semitism so ingrained in the culture of those times that it seemed to seep into this enlightened author's views. For perspective, though not justification, we noted the overall misery of the times for many people. "These people had reason for maintaining their ranks." We also looked at Lily's comment on an acquaintance cousin: "but she likes being good and I like being happy" and asked ourselves if they were necessarily mutually exclusive for Wharton and for our own culture. And we extensively mulled over Wharton's statement: "They have the quality of making other standards non-existent by ignoring them." Our lives and times still highlight this flaw.

Edith Wharton is an interesting and admirable author. The House of Mirth is an excellent social satire. And for a look into another time and world, for perceptiveness of the human condition and nature, for elegant expression of outrage and for presenting issues, ills and ideas which emerge as timeless, a "classic" serves a book group well.

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