In the popular imagination (well, ‘popular’ might be overstating the breadth of her appeal) Wharton is associated with novels of early 20th century New York manners and this book is certainly part of that oeuvre. The film of a few years’ ago, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer in black frock coat and voluminous skirts respectively, probably reinforces the notion that this is a book about the straitjacket of social convention. It is; but it is about many other things too.
I read the Penguin Popular Classics edition, so there were no notes. But, unlike a book by Henry James, who was apparently a bit of a mentor to Wharton, this was not a problem. Her style is deceptively simple and direct. I am sure there were some contemporary references that might have been interesting to know about. But, overall, the book is a straightforward, beautifully written read.
So what is about, apart from the suffocating social mores of a New York trying to be like ‘Old Europe’ but really being something quite different? Well, in no particular order: the stupidity and narcissism of men; the depths of the human soul that are not divinable even by those closest to us; the emotional self indulgence and sense of entitlement that come with great wealth; and, actually, the positive side of social convention. That is, the framework it gives us to navigate life’s greatest trials by pretending we are actually thinking and talking about something quite different. A bit like a poet using the sonnet form, I suppose – the demands of the structure bring out the best in us.
This is not a long book but it is an excellent one and, for this reader anyway, not one that has dated all that much.