I was quite surprised with how I loved The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I read this book as it’s one of the recommended reads by the Penguin’s online writing class that I’m currently doing. And as I just came back from New York, I was intrigued by the dynamics of New York society in the early 1900s. I usually have little emphaty for stories about high class society and their non-problems, but the story of Miss Lily Bart struck a chord in me. I believe her struggles to fit into a class that she can’t afford are still relevant in today’s society. Perhaps not as much and not as dramatic as back in 1900s New York, but especially in Asian society I find many of the aspects of the book to ring true.
The book is divided into two sections. The first one is on the slow side, as a lot of characters and the world are introduced. But the second book flew for me, and I read it quickly. By the time I closed the last chapter I was breathless and completely exhausted. I loved it. I loved it so much more than Pride and Prejudice. I have no idea why P&P should be the more famous of the two. Well, I have an inkling why. The House of Mirth was ruthless in its portrayal of the society and brutally honest. P&P feels like fairy tale compared to The House of Mirth. After reading this book, I am now completely besotted with Edith Wharton and will read more of her books.
From this section on I will talk more in depth about the book, so there could be spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Back to the comparison with Pride and Prejudice, both novels work on the same premise of society framework, that a woman must marry to survive, as in that period she has no other means to sustain herself. This especially seems almost the harsher for the middle class women, as the poor would just have to work, but the middle class women would be idle and concentrate all their time and effort to catching men with comparable or higher wealth and status.
I find it fascinating that Edith Wharton married young and ended unhappy while her character in The House of Mirth does the opposite and is able to avoid the trap of marriage (though it also does not end well for her). On the opposite end, Jane Austen never married, while her character finds her prince charming and fairy tale ending. Both women wrote novels as escapism but from the opposite spectrum. It just happens that Edith Wharton’s realism worked much better for me, and I found it more meaningful.
I read various people’s opinions about Selden and how they wished him to be less passive, but I disagree. This is a story of Lily Bart, and to be satisfying to the readers, SHE has to take actions, and SHE has to take her fate in her own hands. She should NOT be rescued by some prince charming (I’m very glad that the book did not go in this direction). In my opinion, Selden has done enough for someone in his position, and I thought his reactions and behaviors very realistic.
The ending did shock me. I guess we readers had to see it coming, but I didn’t want to believe it until it happened. The plotting in this book I think is nothing short of amazing, and the world building incredible. Wharton makes us understand the rules of the world this story is set in, and the stakes her characters are up against. Lily’s downfall is so believable that there seems to be no hope, while she passes all possible turning points. It’s funny that knowing the premise, you’d think there aren’t that many possible ways the story could turn, but I could not guess where it was going throughout the book.
So I’m totally in camp Edith Wharton now. I can’t wait to go read The Age of Innocence.
Mee’s rating: 5/5 – As odd as it sounds, this early 20th century novel set in New York revolving around high class society has touched me like no other novels from that time period had. Miles better than Pride and Prejudice.