The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton ~ 1922. This edition: Signet, 2000. Introduction by Regina Barreca. Paperback. ISBN: 0-451-52668-6. 252 pages.
My rating: 6/10.
This one started out very well, but I felt it lost steam as it went on, and the ending was, in my opinion, more than slightly weak. But it’s decidedly readable, especially if one is interested in comparing it to the much stronger The House of Mirth, with which it shares some common themes, though the author takes her characters in a different direction, and the tone of The Glimpses of the Moon frequently approaches farce.
I’m going to give you a transcription of the opening page and a general overview – SPOILER ALERT: the ending is divulged – before sending you off to visit several other more thoughtful reviews, both of which much more fully reference The Glimpses of the Moon in relation to The House of Mirth.
It’s been many years since I read Edith Wharton’s tragic American Lit classic, The House of Mirth, but I retain enough memory of it to be able to say that The Glimpses of the Moon is, in comparison, one of Wharton’s minor novels. Coming to it with that initial expectation, I asked myself how it appealed to me as a stand-alone novel. If I had never read any of Edith Wharton’s Big Important Novels, and had picked this one up cold, what would I think? So I won’t be comparing Susy Lansing to Lily Bart, obvious counterparts though they may be.
Here’s the set-up. A young couple is on their honeymoon, and as they linger in the moonlight reflecting off Lake Como, their thoughts are not so much on each other as on their great good fortune in being there at all…
It rose for them—their honey-moon—over the waters of a lake so famed as the scene of romantic raptures that they were rather proud of not having been afraid to choose it as the setting of their own.
“It required a total lack of humour, or as great a gift for it as ours, to risk the experiment,” Susy Lansing opined, as they hung over the inevitable marble balustrade and watched their tutelary orb roll its magic carpet across the waters to their feet.
“Yes—or the loan of Strefford’s villa,” her husband emended, glancing upward through the branches at a long low patch of paleness to which the moonlight was beginning to give the form of a white house-front.
“Oh, come – when we’d five to choose from. At least if you count the Chicago flat.”
“So we had—you wonder!” He laid his hand on hers, and his touch renewed the sense of marvelling exultation which the deliberate survey of their adventure always roused in her…. It was characteristic that she merely added, in her steady laughing tone: “Or, not counting the flat—for I hate to brag—just consider the others: Violet Melrose’s place at Versailles, your aunt’s villa at Monte Carlo—and a moor!”
She was conscious of throwing in the moor tentatively, and yet with a somewhat exaggerated emphasis, as if to make sure that he shouldn’t accuse her of slurring it over. But he seemed to have no desire to do so. “Poor old Fred!” he merely remarked; and she breathed out carelessly: “Oh, well—”
His hand still lay on hers, and for a long interval, while they stood silent in the enveloping loveliness of the night, she was aware only of the warm current running from palm to palm, as the moonlight below them drew its line of magic from shore to shore.
Nick Lansing spoke at last. “Versailles in May would have been impossible: all our Paris crowd would have run us down within twenty-four hours. And Monte Carlo is ruled out because it’s exactly the kind of place everybody expected us to go. So—with all respect to you—it wasn’t much of a mental strain to decide on Como.”
His wife instantly challenged this belittling of her capacity. “It took a good deal of argument to convince you that we could face the ridicule of Como!”
“Well, I should have preferred something in a lower key; at least I thought I should till we got here. Now I see that this place is idiotic unless one is perfectly happy; and that then it’s – as good as any other.”
She sighed out a blissful assent. “And I must say that Streffy has done things to a turn. Even the cigars—who do you suppose gave him those cigars?” She added thoughtfully: “You’ll miss them when we have to go.”
“Oh, I say, don’t let’s talk to-night about going. Aren’t we outside of time and space…? Smell that guinea-a-bottle stuff over there: what is it? Stephanotis?”
“Y-yes…. I suppose so. Or gardenias…. Oh, the fire-flies! Look…there, against that splash of moonlight on the water. Apples of silver in a net-work of gold….” They leaned together, one flesh from shoulder to finger-tips, their eyes held by the snared glitter of the ripples.
“I could bear,” Lansing remarked, “even a nightingale at this moment….”
A faint gurgle shook the magnolias behind them, and a long liquid whisper answered it from the thicket of laurel above their heads.
“It’s a little late in the year for them: they’re ending just as we begin.”
Susy laughed. “I hope when our turn comes we shall say good-bye to each other as sweetly.”
It was in her husband’s mind to answer: “They’re not saying good-bye, but only settling down to family cares.” But as this did not happen to be in his plan, or in Susy’s, he merely echoed her laugh and pressed her closer.
The spring night drew them into its deepening embrace. The ripples of the lake had gradually widened and faded into a silken smoothness, and high above the mountains the moon was turning from gold to white in a sky powdered with vanishing stars. Across the lake the lights of a little town went out, one after another, and the distant shore became a floating blackness. A breeze that rose and sank brushed their faces with the scents of the garden; once it blew out over the water a great white moth like a drifting magnolia petal. The nightingales had paused and the trickle of the fountain behind the house grew suddenly insistent.
When Susy spoke it was in a voice languid with visions. “I have been thinking,” she said, “that we ought to be able to make it last at least a year longer.”
Her husband received the remark without any sign of surprise or disapprobation; his answer showed that he not only understood her, but had been inwardly following the same train of thought.
“You mean,” he enquired after a pause, “without counting your grandmother’s pearls?”
“Yes—without the pearls.”
He pondered a while, and then rejoined in a tender whisper: “Tell me again just how.”
For Nick and Susy are wallowing in borrowed luxury, on borrowed time, and their future consists of one big question mark. Both of them are as poor as church mice, and the last person each should have married was the other, according to the mores of the wealthy social circle they have been delicately moving in, charming parasites tolerated because of their physical attractiveness and gift for amusing repartee. But Susy and Nick have, most unwisely, fallen in love with each other, and when Susy comes up with a plan to enjoy the best of both worlds – to marry her impoverished counterpart and to continue to enjoy the decadent lifestyle which her wealthier contacts have accustomed her to – they take the leap together. And for a while it seems to be working…
Charming her rich friends with the novelty of a poor marriage, Susy has asked outright for cash in lieu of wedding presents, and has let it be known that she and Nick will be most grateful for loaned accommodation. They are set up for a good year or so, if they’re very careful, thinks Susy, with their main expenses being the tips on departure from each borrowed villa or chalet to their borrowed servants – whose salaries are, of course, paid by the owners of these lavish residences. And during that year they will indulge themselves in the luxury of each other’s most desirable company. Nick, an aspiring writer, will perhaps be able to finish the manuscript which will launch him on a successful and lucrative authorial career, and if this works as planned the two will be set. If the worst happens, and Nick’s plans go awry, the two have agreed that they will take whatever better opportunities arise – ie. a new (and, as it goes without saying, wealthier) romantic partner – and amicably part ways to allow each other to take advantage of the new situation.
Though Nick comes across as being the more passive partner in this sophisticated relationship, he is as complicit as Susy in viewing their joint reliance on the generosity of others as his due, so his moral qualms when Susy pops a few things into her luggage on departure from the Italian villa – such as the marvelous cigars mentioned in the excerpt – seem rather ingenious. But Nick insists on maintaining a moral high ground just a little more elevated than Susy’s, and, when Susy allows herself to be part of a marital deception at their next place of residence, the fragile marriage disintegrates, and Nick and Susy go their separate ways, each finding a convenient patron-slash-potential new spouse to sponge off of while their lawyers start the separation proceedings.
But absence does, in this case, make the heart grow fonder, and the two find themselves yearning for what they briefly experienced, a meeting of minds and a true affection for each other. After various heart rendings the two come together again, this time with much more likelihood of making it work, after Nick’s book has been accepted (for he’s been working on it all this time, in his bedroom on the yacht on which he’s been cruising) and Susy’s surprising embrace of domestic life (she’s bizarrely ended up as the temporary caretaker of five lovable children).
I just couldn’t quite swallow Susy’s about face, from self-indulgent, entitled, and materialistic to meek and domestically minded, all in the space of a few months. And the ending chapter, well, it was pure sentimental dribble. Susy, Nick, and the five children Susy is still shepherding around, off for a second honeymoon. Too cute for words, and almost toss-it-across-the-room disappointing. (But I didn’t, because the majority of the book was rather captivating, and Susy’s scheming kept me interested, to see what she would come up with next.)
There are a few little twists and kinks which display the reliably cynical Edith Wharton hand, but by and large this is simply a mildly melodramatic and slightly farcical relationship drama. If updated from the jazz-age Europe of the perennially cruising American expatriates – the jetsetters of their time – it could well be one of those lavish Rich People summer bestsellers so popular in their stereotyped glory today. The Glimpses of the Moon has also been recently (2010) turned into a “comedic romantic musical”, so there you go! Can’t quite imagine the iconic The House of Mirth being so treated…
Still, an interesting read, which kept me amused for several summer afternoons. I did just unearth my copy of The House of Mirth, but I’m not sure if I’m quite in the mood to face the tragedy of poor, self-doomed Lily Bart quite yet; I need to rest a bit, mentally speaking, from this other aspect of Edith Wharton’s authorial oeuvre.
Here are the other reviews promised at the beginning of the post, each rather more scholarly and wise than mine. Enjoy!