Before I begin the actual review, this image I have posted isn't the edition I have. Sadly I couldn't get a good picture of it. Mine is by the Everyman's Library. It's a lovely hardback with a simple cover. If any of you have the chance I recommend you go to your local bookshop and seek these books out. Just feel those pages inside and I bet you will end up at the till with one of them. I have never felt pages like it. So soft and smooth that it made reading from this book an absolute pleasure. I would have been happy reading almost anything.
Fortunately this book was just as good as it's binding. It won Wharton the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1921 and she was the first woman to win it. Proud at first until she found out it was because her book was the less riskier choice. She quickly went from proud to irate. Either the judges didn't get the humour in the book or they chose to ignore it. Wharton was born into the society she portrays in the book and sets out to show everything she detests about it. Newland is the epitome of that. He is pretentious and a snob. He sees his future wife as a pretty little thing who will make his life comfortable and will share his opinions. May of course goes along with this belief as she was brought up to feel the same way. He spends maybe a couple of hours putting in time at the office but it's really just for show. A well bred man would never lower himself to be seen to be taken part in something as low as business. He in fact scoffs at a friends suggestion that he should go into politics. One character who is in the habit of business is reviled for it.
Only Olenska seems to play outside the rules. She wants her time filled with art, music and literature and all the people who can provide it. She was used to these things in Europe and is a little taken a back that such things are not socially accepted in New York. They only go further to tarnish her reputation. If Olenska had been anyone else Newland would have been just as disgusted as his fellow peers. In the end it's the people she chooses to associate with, new money and the reviled businessman, that irritate him. I wonder if Olenska mirrors some of Wharton's life as she too was in an unhappy marriage and liked to fill her hours with the same pursuits as Olenska.
We aren't meant to like any of these characters apart from maybe Olenska. I didn't dislike them either. Right or wrong they were a product of their time and upbringing. The end of the book jumps 26 years and Newland's son is poking fun at his father's way of life. In fact the last chapter makes a point of showing how much things have changed in that time and you are left thinking what might have been had Olenska arrived then rather than 30 years earlier.
A fantastic book. I think Wharton reminded me a little of Austen (although I am not sure Wharton would be pleased by that) her humour is subtler however. It's in the plot and the characteristics of the characters rather than their sharp wit. I think Newland could easily have irritated me but instead I found him rather funny thanks to Wharton's talent. I can't wait to read more by her.
One thing I do recommend is that you don't do what I did. If you pick up a copy of this book and it has an introduction read it at the end. I read it first (and I rarely read introductions) and whilst it was definitely interesting it also told me the entire plot of the book.
At the end of each post I am going to link my birthday giveaway. I don't know how to make it sticky and I would hate for anyone to miss out on the chance of signing up. So apologies if this gets repetitive. Birthday Giveaway!