Sunday, 26 July 2015

'The House of Mirth' by Edith Wharton (1905)

Synopsis: The House of Mirth is mainly set in 1890s' New York. Lily Bart is 29 years old and is on the prowl for a husband who can keep her in the luxurious and affluent circles to which she is accustomed. Lily is charming and strikingly beautiful but her father lost his entire fortune when she was 19 and Lily has had to rely on the charity of a wealthy aunt ever since. As Lily is no longer a d√©butante she's now feeling under great pressure to marry. Lily's one and only true friend is a middle-class lawyer called Mr Selden but although Lily has romantic feelings for him she's decided that Selden isn't rich enough for her liking. Instead she's set her sights on a millionaire called Percy Gryce. However, Lily then manages to sabotage her own plans. Lily then becomes even more desperate to marry when she finds herself falsely accused of adultery by a malicious socialite in order to cover up her own affair. With her reputation in ruins, Lily is abandoned by her relatives and friends and falls into unemployment, grinding poverty and a drug addiction.

The House of Mirth is the third Edith Wharton book that I've read this year and I had fairly high expectations for it, because when I happened to speak to a couple of fellow bloggers about this book they then told me that it was their favourite of Wharton's novels. Well, maybe it was because I wasn't in quite the right mood for it but I didn't find The House of Mirth anywhere near as intriguing and emotionally engaging as The Age of Innocence and Summer because I just couldn't connect with Lily Bart at all. The characters in the other Edith Wharton books that I've read were flawed of course but for me they were... more engagingly flawed I suppose.

I certainly don't think that Lily deserved everything that happened to her but I found her character very difficult to like and hard to understand. She made so many frustrating decisions in this book that I simply couldn't bring myself to feel very much sympathy for her until right near the very end. Lily rejects all of her suitors because she thinks she can do better, engages in some ridiculous activities without thinking of any of the potential consequences (i.e. her gambling), and refuses to accept any real help or assistance towards the end because she thinks it would be compromising her dignity for some reason. I couldn't see the need for all of the sacrifices that Lily made in this book either. Why does she think that a marriage to Mr Rosedale would be so much worse than extreme poverty? Why does she refuse to blackmail Bertha even though Bertha is a terrible woman who's trying to ruin her life? Hmm...

I can understand why some readers would like this book because it has the beautiful writing and the sharp social commentary that I've come to expect from Wharton but I just didn't care for it. I think the fact that I couldn't connect with Lily prevented me from becoming invested in the story. Objectively I wouldn't say that this book is bad by any means but personally I found it highly frustrating.

Rating: 2/5

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