By August 12, 2009 0 Comments Read More →

Bravo, Edith!

Lately I seem to be on an Edith Wharton kick.  The film made in 2000 from her early novel, The House of Mirth, is one of my very favorites.  It stars Gillian Anderson (yes, she of The X-Files, and she’s sensational!) and Eric Stoltz, and it features a wonderful supporting cast, including Dan Aykroyd, Anthony LaPaglia and Laura Linney (as a delicious villain) — and if you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat.

This compelling story of high society in turn-of-the-20th-century New York centers on a beautiful woman who wants to move in exalted circles but doesn’t really have enough money to compete and so ends up paying a devastating price for her ill-considered desire to belong.  Recently I listened to an audio version of the book, narrated by a wonderful actress with whom I was not familiar — Barbara Caruso.  Even though I knew the story, I was riveted by Caruso’s superb reading — it was like having Edith Wharton herself in your living room, telling you all the fascinating details of this poor woman’s downfall.

Wharton was an amazing writer — her descriptions of settings are so beautifully formed, and her characterizations are so real and insightful.  She seemed to have an unfailing ability for choosing exactly the right combination of words to create a scene and to always end it on a dramatic and extremely telling note.

So after I finished with The House of Mirth (although I doubt I shall ever be really finished with it — it’s the sort of book one keeps returning to again and again), I moved on to Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence.  This book is considered to be her masterpiece — it was published in 1921 (sixteen years after The House of Mirth), and it too has been made into a powerful movie (in 1993), starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder.

It’s hard for me to decide which book I like better, and so I’m glad I don’t have to.  They’re both magnificent.  The Age of Innocence is also set in Old New York and focuses on some of the same themes — especially Wharton’s biting criticism of rich people and their unbending rules.  But The House of Mirth is not a love story in the way that The Age of Innocence is — yes, the main character is once again doomed by social strictures and his own foolish choices, but at least Newland Archer (the protagonist of  Innocence) gets to experience grand passion in a manner that Lily Bart (the heroine of Mirth) never has the chance to do.

If you haven’t read these books, I really urge you to do so — and to consider using them in your book groups.  They were written many years ago, but they read as if the author produced them just last week.  Edith Wharton had much to say about human relationships and the values that mold them.  I led a discussion of  The Age of Innocence once, but it was years ago, and the book seemed to have a greater impact on me this time around.  As the Ben Kingsley character in the recent and extremely remarkable movie Elegy notes, you can read a book and it means one thing to you, and then you can read it again years later and it means something different — because you are no longer the same person and so now it is not the same book.

I hope my recommendations of Edith Wharton’s novels attract new readers and inspire great book discussions.

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About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

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