Archive for the ‘Edith Wharton’ Category

Here’s the second installment in my look back at some of the ups and downs, highs and lows, bests and worsts of my personal 2013 reading year.

Yesterday I picked out 10 books which pleased me. These weren’t necessarily the “best” things I read, but they left me with a sincere sense of pleasure.

Today I think I will highlight 10 books (or maybe one or two more) which surprised me by confounding my preconceived expectations in some way. Most of these choices have already been reviewed on the blog, but there are several which I didn’t get around to, so I’ll see if I can link some more detailed discussions when I get to those.

Without further ado, here is the 2013 Round-Up Part 2, of 10+ Most Unexpected Reads. Still to come, 2013 Round-Up Parts 3 and 4, Most Disappointing and Personal Favourites. 

*****

MOST UNEXPECTED READS 2013

In order of publication.

*****

where the blue begins christopher morley cover 0011. Where the Blue Begins     

by Christopher Morley ~ 1922

Gissing lived alone (except for his Japanese butler) in a little house in the country, in that woodland suburb region called the Canine Estates. He lived comfortably and thoughtfully, as bachelors often do. He came of a respectable family, who had always conducted themselves calmly and without too much argument. They had bequeathed him just enough income to live on cheerfully, without display but without having to do addition and subtraction at the end of the month and then tear up the paper lest Fuji (the butler) should see it.

Here we have a decently prosperous, almost middle-aged bachelor, one Gissing, whose private income is just sufficient to allow him a life of leisure, with a country house staffed by a manservant, and scope for mild entertainment and some local travelling. But comfortable though his life is, Gissing is occasionally disturbed by vague yet compelling yearnings to see and understand his purpose in the world. What’s it all about, and what should we do with it, this thing called “Life”? What’s over the next horizon, “where the blue begins”?

Well, nothing here to raise any eyebrows, and certainly nothing to put this on the Most Unexpected list, except for the twist, which is that this is the world as we know it, but it is peopled entirely with anthropomorphized dogs. They walk on two legs, wear clothes, drive motorcars, dwell in houses, but the canine instinct continually makes itself known. Aromas madden these creatures; they occasionally tear off their clothes and run madly through the countryside, to return apologetically to their dwellings when the mood passes. They snap and snarl when taunted, and the pack instinct is strongly present, as Gissing finds to his discomfort when he falls afoul of the status quo and is hunted by a ravening group of his peers.

It’s beyond weird, this whole conceit, but it works surprisingly well, and Morley is obviously enjoying himself thoroughly the whole way through this very odd book.  Where the Blue Begins was a bestseller in its time, and was produced in numerous editions. And yes, this is the Christopher Morley of The Haunted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels, and if I was expecting something along those lines when I first picked up Where the Blue Begins, I was soon shaken out of my complacency.

glimpses of the moon edith wharton 0012. The Glimpses of the Moon 

by Edith Wharton ~ 1922

Susy and Nick, bona-fide beautiful people, live by their wits as hangers-on among the idle rich. Susy gets by on her charming personality alone, while Nick is an aspiring writer, but the last thing either wants is a moneyless marriage, so when they find that they have fallen in love with each other, the relationship seems a non-starter from the beginning. Until Susy comes up with a clever plan to seize at least a year of happiness together before they must part to seek wealthier partners.

A playful and frivolous departure for the generally serious Edith Wharton, and one which I mostly enjoyed, especially in the early chapters where Susy dances precariously on the knife blade of dazzling her more dull-witted but well-heeled sponsors into paying for her honeymoon. Susy is the Jazz Age Lily Bart, though her eventual fate is kinder, as befits this much lighter production by an American literary icon.

 

cheerful weather for the wedding julia strachey3. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

by Julia Strachey ~ 1932

An unexpectedly dark, very short, hard-to-analyze novella which got a lot of attention in the blogosphere earlier this year, due to the recent release of a padded-out film version of the story. The humour which many reviewers identified is definitely there, but I found much pathos as well, though it was of the twisted sort, where one is not quite sure if the author is sneering a bit at her readers for being taken in by the obvious and missing the hidden implications. Confusing response? Well, if so, it fits this odd little book perfectly well.

Dolly Thatcham is getting married in a few hours, and upon meeting her in the opening pages of the book we take a deep breath and hold it for the duration. This book is strung out with tension. Something is going to happen. Something more than a mere marriage ceremony, the veiled implication teases us.

It was as if the drawing-room reappeared in the mirror as a familiar room in a dream reappears, ghostly, significant, and wiped free of all signs of humdrum and trivial existence. Two crossed books lying flat, the round top of a table, a carved lizard’s head on a clock, the sofa-top and its arms, shone in the grey light from the sky outside; everything else was in shadow. The transparent ferns that stood massed in the window showed up very brightly and looked fearful. They seemed to have come alive, so to speak. They looked to have just that moment reared up their long backs, arched their jagged and serrated bodies menacingly, twisted and knotted themselves tightly about each other and darted out long forked and ribboning tongues from one to the other; and all as if under some terrible compulsion … they brought to mind travellers’ descriptions of the jungles in the Congo, – of the silent struggles and strangulations that vegetable life there consists in it seems.

To complete the picture, Dolly’s white face, with its thick and heavily curled back lips, above her black speckled wool frock, glimmered palely in front of the ferns, like a phosphorescent orchid blooming alone there in the twilit swamp.

For five or six minutes, the pale and luminous orchid remained stationary, in the centre of the mirror’s dark surface. The strange thing was the way the eyes kept ceaselessly roaming, shifting, ranging, round and round the room. Round and round again … this looked queer – the face so passive and remote seeming, and the eyes so restless.

The light perhaps caught the mirrored eyes at a peculiar angle, and this might have caused them to glitter so uncomfortably, it seemed even so wildly – irresponsibly, – like the glittering eyes of a sick woman who is exhausted, yet feverish.

This is indeed a bride with a back story.

the towers of trebizond 1 rose macaulay4. The Towers of Trebizond

by Rose Macaulay ~ 1956

‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

No doubt many of you are familiar with this quotation of the first line in this iconic and deeply strange fiction. Presented by publishers and numerous reviewers as a light and humorous travel tale, I found that it was no such thing, though there was certainly some humour and more than a little travel involved.

It took me a very long time – weeks – to work my way through The Towers of Trebizond, because I found it exhausting in what it asked of me as a reader to process. But this in no way put me off; it actually intrigued me and made me more and more eager to come to grips with what the author was doing here.

The narrator, Laurie, of ambiguous gender until the very end of the story, is accompanying an aunt and an Anglican priest on a visit to Turkey, with the joint aims of converting Muslims to Christianity (Father Chantry-Pigg), studying the living conditions of the local female populace (Aunt Dot), and writing a travel book (Laurie). Part way through the trip, Father Chantry-Pigg and Aunt Dot disappear, apparently into Soviet Russia, leaving Laurie stranded in more ways than one.

A Billy Graham Crusade and a group of apocalypse-anticipating Seventh-Day Adventists heading for Mount Ararat add an element of farce to the saga, as does Laurie’s acquisition of an ape which Laurie attempts to lead into a more highly evolved human form, at one point attempting to teach it to drive a car, with the expected results.

The internet is crowded with marvelous reviews of this fantastical tale, and I hesitate to choose one for you, so I will leave it up to you to investigate further. Worth reading, but keep your mind open. This is not at all what it at first seems to be.

people who knock on the door patricia highsmith5. People Who Knock on the Door 

by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1983

A tense, noir, almost-thriller; a can’t-look-away, exceedingly uncomfortable depiction of a dysfunctional family and its twisted disintegration after two of its members embrace an arcane strain of Christian fundamentalism. None of the characters are particularly likeable or completely faultless, including the pseudo-hero Arthur, eldest son of the family in question, who is the closest thing to a chief protagonist in this tense tale.

Despite its date of publication, it seems to be set in the 1950s, and has a decidedly vintage feel to it. This is the first Patricia Highsmith book I’ve ever read, though I’ve seen several of the movie adaptations of her work, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and of course the Venetian-set Talented Mr. Ripley, so the dark psychological elements in this were somewhat expected, though the way this one progressed was completely unpredictable to me, hence its inclusion on this list.

dear doctor lily monica dickens 0016. Dear Doctor Lily

by Monica Dickens ~ 1988

This was one of the last novels of the prolific Monica Dickens, who died in 1992 at the age of 77. Her first book, the best-selling and still in print One Pair of Hands, was published in 1939, and it was followed by at least thirty more, some of which are classics of middlebrow fiction. All of her books are compulsively readable, and Dear Doctor Lily is no exception. I couldn’t look away, much as I occasionally wished to. Its frequent bleakness rather disturbed me; the author definitely has the gloves off here in her vivid descriptions of two very different marriages.

Two English girls meet on a flight to America in the early 1960s. Ida is heading to an American G.I.’s family home; she is going to be married, and her expectations are high that her life will be better than it was in England, even if she has a few inner qualms about her prospective spouse and his true devotion to her. Lily is destined to go a very different direction. She is about to meet the man who will become her lover; her far-off future holds a deeply happy marriage, though she has no inkling of that as yet, just as Ida has no foreboding of her own future abuse at the hands of her brutal spouse, and her desperately squalid future.

This book is all about random encounters, and the inconceivable vagaries of the hand of fate. Rather appropriate from a writer in her seventh decade, come to think of it – Monica Dickens paid attention her whole life to what was going on around her, and Dear Doctor Lily showcases the result of such keenly discriminating observation.

And though I’d love to link a proper  review, I couldn’t find much online beyond the sketchiest of references, so you’ll have to take my word for it that this is a must-read for the Monica Dickens enthusiast, but that it’s definitely not a comfort read. Glimmers of hope and bits of personal redemption keep it out of the totally depressing category, and the writing is, as ever, stellar.

after the falls catherine gildiner7. After the Falls

by Catherine Gildiner ~ 2009

This was a grand year for memoirs, and this one was outstanding and highly unexpected in the direction it went. Toronto psychologist Catherine Gildiner looks back at her adolescence in Buffalo, New York in the 1960s, and her subsequent troubled relationship with a volatile poet and civil rights movement protestor. Outspoken and funny and tragic and compulsively readable. A follow-up to the also-bestselling Too Close to the Falls, which you may already be familiar with, and which is now on my own Must-Read list.

february lisa moore 0018. February

by Lisa Moore ~ 2010

This well researched and absolutely heart-rending historical fiction about Newfoundland’s 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster won this year’s annual C.B.C. Radio Canada Reads contest, and, in my opinion, deserves every bit of praise it got.

February is based on a true Canadian tragedy. On Valentine’s night in 1982, out on the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland, the oil drilling rig Ocean Ranger capsized and sank during a violent storm. All eighty-four men on board the rig died in the frigid waters, some apparently within hailing distance of a vessel which was unable to rescue them. The families of the dead learned of the disaster from news accounts on the radio; the oil company made no attempt to notify them. February’s main character Helen O’Mara loses her husband Cal that night. She has three young children and is pregnant with a fourth. Life for all of them becomes indelibly marked by their loss in ways both immediate and not always obvious until many years later.

I generally avoid books which are this desperately emotional, but February surprised me by its enjoyability. Maybe it was the pugnaciously regional voice of the fictional Helen, with its plethora of to-the-point and very funny “Newfie”-isms, or perhaps it was the appealing interviews with the author I was lucky enough to catch on the radio during the Canada Reads debates, but I’m very glad I gave it a chance.

i the suicide's library tim bowling jacket9. In the Suicide’s Library

by Tim Bowling ~ 2010

Is it ever right to steal a book? Tim Bowling, Canadian poet, browsing a university library collection, stumbles upon a copy of poet Wallace Steven’s Ideas of Order, signed on the flyleaf by yet another poet, Weldon Kees, who disappeared mysteriously one day in 1955, with evidence suggesting his suicide by jumping of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

Tim Bowling allows his collector’s lust to suggest certain possibilities to him. Would anyone even notice if he “liberated” such a poet’s treasure from its dusty obscurity in the stacks? In the process or worrying this ethical dilemma out, Bowling spins out a book-length ramble about not only Stevens and Kees, but his own personal life.

This book is nothing if not rambling, and it does go on and on and on, and I absolutely hated Bowling’s final decision regarding the book, which I cannot share here, as it is the whole point of working through this thing. It made me grumpy for days, and still offends me to think about it. But I’m glad I sought this literary oddity out, and I’ll be reading it again, and deep down inside I was pleased to have been challenged by my disagreement with certain of Bowling’s opinions. Forgive the cliché, but this one was absolutely thought-provoking.

the sisters brothers patrick dewitt10. The Sisters Brothers

by Patrick deWitt ~ 2011

I was a little bit leery about this one to begin with. I’d heard all the hype, and seen it on the Big!New!Books! displays in the mall chain bookstores, and I looked at it from a distance and was all snooty, ’cause I don’t do Westerns or cowboy books, and this screamed that from twenty feet away. But then I heard an excerpt read out loud on the C.B.C., and the very next week one of my friendly used book dealers gave me a pristine copy as a bonus to my substantial purchase. Obviously it was meant to be.

Two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are employed as hit men in the Gold Rush-era “Old West”. Their quest to end the life of one Hermann Kermit Warm leads to many complications and moral examinations, mostly by narrator Eli. Macabre, cold-blooded and unexpectedly, surrealistically funny. Kudos to the author for the ending; it went a different direction than I’d expected, in a very good way. Loved it. Absolutely brilliant. (But not for the squeamish!)

Here’s a fine review, one of many out there: Tipping My Fedora: The Sisters Brothers 

Bonus Choice # 11

Caitlin Moran Lets It All Hang Out

how to be a woman caitlin moranHow to Be a Woman

by Caitlin Moran ~ 2011

moranthology caitlin moranMoranthology

by Caitlin Moran ~ 2012

Swimming into my awareness early in 2013 was British pop culture critic and memoirist Caitlin Moran. Nothing could have prepared me for her, she’s very much of the “have to experience it for yourself” variety of writer. Mostly I enjoyed my hectic time with Ms. Moran; occasionally she completely freaked me out. She always surprised me, though, both by her vividly expressed opinions, her eager willingness to share the most intimate details of her life, and by the excellent quality of her more serious pieces.

How to Be a Woman ~ Absolutely loved some of it; a few bits appalled me. This writer has no self-edit function! Which makes this high speed, profane, too-much-information rant on the business of being female both deeply engaging and just a bit worrisome to those of us functioning on a less high speed plane of “normal”. Very good, and I enjoyed it. But there are episodes and opinions here and there that triggered the “ick!” response! And she swears. A lot.

Moranthology ~ Caitlin Moran looks back at her childhood and adolescence and skewers her younger self as brutally as she does the pop stars she profiles in this outspoken and slashingly funny collection of articles.

 

*****

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summer edith whartonSummer by Edith Wharton ~ 1917. This edition: Berkley, 1981. Introduction by Marilyn French. Paperback. ISBN: 0-425-04610-9. 205 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

I couldn’t quite remember how many years ago I read this novel for the first time, but from the bookstore stamp (The Emporium – “New and Old” – Olds, Alberta) it must have been back in the late 1980s.

I have retained favorable memories of this rather Thomas Hardy-esque story right up until my re-reading this past week. There were a few gaps and blurring of details which I hadn’t remembered, but in essence my impressions of the book were identical this time around.

This was one of Edith Wharton’s favourites among her novels, according to Marilyn French’s Introduction, which I read, as is my habit – I prefer to come to my reading without too much prior analysis, as a rule – only after I’d finished the book.  Summer nonetheless has not been viewed as one of Wharton’s major accomplishments. It is a slight thing compared to her masterworks such as The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but it shares with those the same elements of examining how characters are trapped within a closed society’s defined roles, and, even more deeply examined, their moral struggles surrounding surrender to romantic and sexual desires.

Summer’s heroine is Charity Royall, foster child of one of her small, rural New England village’s leading citizens, Lawyer Royall. Charity is just that, a charity-child, brought into the village from the nearby “Mountain”, a loose community of social outcasts. In the words of Lawyer Royall:

“The Mountain? The Mountain?… Why, the Mountain’s a blot… That scum up there ought to have been run in long ago—and would have, if the people down here hadn’t been clean scared of them… there’s a gang of thieves and outlaws living over there, in sight of us, defying the laws of their country. Why, there ain’t a sheriff or a tax-collector or a coroner’d durst go up there. When they hear of trouble on the Mountain the selectmen look the other way, and pass an appropriation to beautify the town pump…”

Charity is now nineteen years old, and has been living alone with her foster father since her foster mother’s death some years ago. She’s a dark-eyed, dark-haired, lushly lovely young thing, poised on the brink of womanhood; her main emotion is of frustration at the bleakness of her present life, and the absence of any sort of prospects. Since her foster father’s tentative advances one night some time ago, Charity has made a few changes in her life. She’s approached the town’s most prominent citizen (after Lawyer Royall), Miss Hatchard, and asked for a position as librarian in the dusty little library; Charity hopes to earn enough money to get out of town, though her actual plans are nebulous. An elderly woman has also been hired to live in and provide chaperonage; Lawyer Royall, notoriously tight-fisted, has been shamed into paying for this after his alcohol-fueled faux pas.

When a handsome young relative of Miss Hatchard’s unexpectedly shows up one bright June day, Charity falls hard. Her romance follows the course of the season, from innocently blushing June through the breathless days of July to full fruition in sultry August. And, predictably, to a anti-climactic close in the fall, when Lucius Harney, betrothed to another woman, must abandon his summer love to return to his real life; worlds away from Charity’s.

But Charity is, predictably, left in a decidedly compromised position. Though her foster father and neighbours are willing to turn a blind eye to her summer love affair, the souvenir her lover has left her will change her life completely. If, that is, she doesn’t take steps to rid herself of her liability.

What a fascinating glimpse of early 20th century women’s private lives this story gives! The discussion about young women “losing their virtue”, and the choices then open to them is frank and vivid, even though voiced only in  Wharton’s veiled allusions. Charity visits an abortionist, a woman doctor who specializes in helping women deal with their indiscretions – for a price – and, once her pregnancy is confirmed, greatly surprises the doctor by her next decision.

This is a story that hangs greatly on a series of coincidences; it is abundantly obvious that the author has planned her narrative carefully; every incident has a connection to the whole. A brief meeting in chapter one, or a mention of a seemingly minor event or a character’s idiosyncrasy is invariably followed up later on. And much as I appreciated Wharton’s meticulous approach, after a while I started looking for those connections; I ended my reading with a strong sensation of having read something completely contrived and separated from any sort of organic flow.

This novel felt like the author deliberated every last word. Is this a good thing? Well, in my opinion, sort of. As a piece of literary art this sort of hyper-detail can certainly be appropriate, but as a reader I found myself becoming aware too often of the creative master hand; it did disturb the narrative flow as I increasingly mulled over the place of each incident in the broader web.

Summer is often referred to as Wharton’s “erotic novel”, and the description is apt, if one considers that the most powerful eroticism comes from one’s own mind, as the reader builds an emotional picture upon open-ended suggestion. We never get the actual details of what Charity and Lucius are up to, but it’s very obvious what is about to happen every time the curtain of propriety drops; Charity’s general state of being at the beginning of the novel can rightly be described as “ready for love”; her naturally sensuous nature (sensuous in the most genuine sense – she glories in every physical and emotional stimulus around her – the warmth of the sun, the feel of the wind, the fragrance of flowers, the sight and texture of a piece of lovely fabric) leaves her open to the experience of sensual (and ultimately sexual) pleasure when at last she has the opportunity in her more than sheltered life.

What Charity is not is any sort of an intellectual. Despite her librarianship, books leave her cold, and her foster father’s and lover’s lively shared conversations bemuse her completely; she escapes their verbal gymnastics by quiet emotional retreat into her own small inner world which is governed by feelings rather than ideas. But when ideas do start to form, Charity’s actions are gloriously individualistic. She becomes completely self-centered in her responses to the situations she finds herself in, moving by sure inner instinct rather than by “appropriate” societal response.

The novel’s ending (which I am not going to reveal in detail; I do think this is a novel which rewards a reader’s personal discovery) and Charity’s ultimate decision regarding herself and her unborn child is surprising, and could, to some, be easily seen as a failure on the author’s part to allow her character to continue on her path to personal self-fulfillment. This is, naturally, as seen by our 21st Century eyes. But Charity is not of our time; she is doing the best she can in the place she comes from; I don’t believe it is fair to judge her actions and decisions in light of the choices women have a century later. I came away feeling that Charity’s future might well be a reasonably content and fulfilling one, though doubtless many will not agree, seeing her fate as infinitely dreary, with regards to “happiness” as we might define it today.

A must-read for anyone who has dabbled in Edith Wharton’s more prominent pieces, and an excellent summer read (so appropriately titled!) for the connoisseur of vintage fiction.

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glimpses of the moon edith wharton 001The 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.”

the glimpses of the moon edith wharton 2For 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!

His Futile Preoccupations – Guy Savage Reviews Glimpses of the Moon

Seeing the World Through Books –  Mary Whipple Reviews Glimpses of the Moon

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