Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #24: The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

I read Ethan Frome in my freshman year of high school and hated it so much I wanted to kill it and myself. Oh my God, the pointless angst and the sledding and the EPIC BORINGNESS WOVEN OF FAIL AND GROSSNESS. I hated it. I should note that my freshman English teacher was kind of horrid and the only redeeming part of the class was the reading of To Kill A Mockingbird, even though she did her level best to make that terrible as well. Luckily, she has since retired and her post has been taken over by one of my former classmates who is very smart and very funny and who I trust is kicking ass and taking names.

So anyway, I hated Ethan Frome and this hate killed off any interest I had in reading Edith Wharton. As I got older and dug more into the literary world, however, I kept running into people talking about how great The House of Mirth was and how "boy, Edith Wharton was one interesting, hardcore human," and gradually I started considering rekindling my relationship with her. Then one day I was in Tatnuck Bookseller in Westborough (vastly inferior to former Old School Tatnuck Bookseller in Worcester, R.I.P) and The Custom of the Country was on the $2 shelf, so I picked it up and said "better not let me down again, Wharton," and then breezed through to the checkout line as people backed slowly away from me for fear that I was perhaps more than a little crazy.

BRIEF SEMI-TANGENT: Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, Everyman's Library, for making nice, well-bound, durable copies of classic literature that I can drop repeatedly, bend open the binding on and generally abuse without significant damage to the book itself. Everyone can go buy lots and lots of Everyman's Library books here. (Oh my God, NOOOOOOOO, don't tell me they have a Best Of collection! How do they expect me to ever have money ever?)

Okay ANYWAY, The Custom of the Country. Great book. I have issues with Period Society Novels, a la the Jane Austen type works about how people navigated society and still found a stiff, parent-sanctioned type of love, etc. I find it very hard to understand why anyone put up with the abject idiocy of the class system when it went so hard against their desires. There are obvious economic and political advantages to the system, but I find that few books successfully show why individuals would ascribe to the system even when it was clearly Not Working For Them. Give me a Becky Sharp before an Elizabeth Bennet ANY day, is my point; repugnant though Becky may frequently be, at least she's making her life work for her instead of spending her days talking shit about the class system while clinging desperately to its rules and regulations. In Wharton's depiction of New York society, she successfully shows what the hell the members of polite society got out of it and why they chose to stay within its construct.

Undine Spragg is a big fish who has outgrown her local pond. She has the natural beauty to make a break for New York, and her parents take her there with high hopes. She is completely domineering and manipulates her parents and those around her without a care. She continues this trend when she makes a society marriage to the dreamy Ralph Marvell, a poet with no real taste for business. Wharton draws an interesting contrast in the two halves of the relationship; while Undine seems to care only for the trappings of business, she is actually far better at it than Ralph. When their eventual divorce comes along, she is able to really take these business skills out for a drive and as an independent actor, is able to better realize her true potential. She is the face of new American society, where there is more business than polite bons mots and the latest fashion. Needless to say, I like Undine's style because she uses manners, traditions and fashion to their greatest effect - as tools for social adventuring.

Good book, lively prose, interesting look at New York society and to some extent European society, excellent statement on the American marriage and correspondingly, American divorce. Much better than Ethan Frome, which sucks and is about nothing.

413 pages

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