The House of Mirth: Book One

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Earlier this week, one of my favorite television shows, "Gossip Girl," ended after six seasons. The program, which spotlighted the lives of New York City's social elite, was influenced heavily by Edith Wharton's work. The characters once reenacted The Age of Innocence in a school play, and one couple in the show, Lily and Bart Bass, were named after the protagonist of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart.

Wharton was a perfect inspiration for the teen TV hit, since she grew up among the power-players. As I've stated in my review of The Age of Innocence, her family originated the saying "keeping up with the Joneses." This Pulitzer Prize-winning author became the voice of the wealthiest Americans of the early 20th century.

The House of Mirth (1905) begins with Lily Bart, a single woman in her late 20s, suffering from gambling debt. Raised by a father who experienced financial ruin and a mother who resented him for their "dingy" lifestyle, Lily is a on a mission to find a rich husband.

Lily knows just how beautiful she is, so she decides to work her feminine charms on multiple prospects. There's Percy Gryce, a well-to-do but dull bachelor; Gus Trenor, a married man who helps with Lily's investments; and Lawrence Selden, a man with passion instead of a fortune.

Book One does an excellent job of introducing the many characters, with plenty of details about their family backgrounds, financial situations, and style of dress. Fitting into this elite world proves increasingly more difficult, given that every little mistake is noted and gossiped around town at lightning speed. Lily's confidence in scaling the social ladder fluctuates every day, depending on whether she garners male attention and a steady income.

On one hand, you want Lily to achieve happiness, but on the other, you have to shake your head at her foolish methods. Her vanity gives her a sense of entitlement, and her penchant for flirting with men for money without acknowledging the danger of that exchange gets her into even more trouble.

I'm a sucker for 'fallen woman' stories which highlight the battle between love and money, but as I'm halfway through this novel, I must say that although The House of Mirth is a well-written critique of New York's upper class, it doesn't hold up against The Age of Innocence. There's enough drama and backstabbing in this literary soap opera, but so far it lacks the romance as seen between Newland and Ellen.

Lily reminds me of Madame Bovary, in the sense that both women play a large role in their respective demises. Even though the novels don't have the fast-paced action many modern readers require, I love the social commentary because I feel that much of it is still relevant today. We are often just as concerned with reputation as these characters of 100 years ago. And as much as we'd like to think we choose significant others out of love, finances are still important in making and maintaining marriages.

Book Review: The Innocents

Rating: 4 out of 5

I was pleased with Francesca Segal's The Innocents, her modern adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.

To sum up the original story, it follows the forbidden romance between Newland Archer, engaged to the simple-minded May Welland, and Ellen Olenska, May's scandalous cousin. It's a quintessential battle between love and societal obligation.

Segal's version is basically the same plot, but swaps the New York elite of the 1870s for the Jewish community in today's London.  Adam Newman is also a lawyer, and the object of his desire Ellie Schneider faces similar judgment for her provocative behavior.

But even if you've read The Age of Innocence, Segal provides an engaging adaptation with plenty of unique aspects. No one can compete with Wharton's prose, but Segal's writing is insightful, offering cultural commentary on what it's like to be part of a Jewish family.

The characters were also multidimensional: You feel angry with Adam's quickness to commit adultery, but at the same time, you understand his frustration from passively submitting to his high school sweetheart-fiance instead of experiencing more of the world.

The Innocents is an apt reminder that lovers not only enter into a relationship with each other, but also with one another's friends and family. It's so important to know who you are and what you want, because although you should respect those closest to you, you should not let them dictate how to live your life.

I won't spoil the ending, but Wharton fans won't be surprised. Adam soon realizes what's at stake when a whirlwind of lust threatens his solidifying future, and I enjoyed his emotional journey as he decides whether to take the risk. Wharton will always be queen of her story, but Segal certainly makes the royal court.

Book Review: Madame Bovary

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I'm finally finished!!! Although I have to admit, I usually don't take this long to finish a book, because if I really like it, I will make time for it, school and work be damned. That means, of course, that I didn't love this book--but it was very good nonetheless.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert's first novel published in 1857, is about Emma Bovary, a French woman stuck in a miserable marriage to an incompetent, middle-class doctor. Bored out of her mind with a husband she doesn't love and a daughter she never wanted, she decides to commit adultery and spend outside of her means to desperately fill her life with lust and wealth.

Much like Chopin's The Awakening, this novel polarizes readers depending on their thoughts on adultery. Since I understand how powerless women were during the 19th century, I don't blame Emma for having wandering eyes. She was brought up believing that marriage would complete her and her father pushed her to marry young. Her husband is also a cowardly twit who sucks at his profession--he lost a man's leg trying to cure his limp. If I was faced with the choice between him and Emma's passionate lovers Rodolphe and Leon, I'd make her same decision.

However, Emma is not entirely blameless. I also suffer from her grass-is-always-greener personality, but she has impossible expectations of love and happiness. In modern terms, she's a Stage Five Clinger. Her naivete made it easy for her lovers to take advantage of her, and her neediness pushed them away.

She was also convinced that if she isn't floating on clouds in post-orgasmic bliss, she's in a hell-hole of misery--when in fact, life mostly varies in the grey area in-between. Many scholars have labeled Emma as bipolar, given her extreme mood-swings, but if you read enough 19th century literature, her personality is common among female protagonists (ex. Catherine in Wuthering Heights).

Madame Bovary was not nearly as good as other novels about adultery, like The Awakening or The Age of Innocence, perhaps because Emma in part deserved her demise, and her lovers were not worthy of her attention. I was not rooting for anybody while I was reading, so I felt little sadness at the end.

I also found it interesting that even though the novel is titled Madame Bovary, it begins and ends with her husband. It's tragic that in a book about her, she is still defined by the men in her life. The reading experience was cathartic for me: I pity Emma for her lack of freedom, and I fear her circumstances happening to me. Because if anyone argues that women don't suffer from male oppression anymore, they're greatly mistaken. Feminism has come a long way, but smart, beautiful, successful women are still pressured to believe that if they don't marry and have kids, they're worthless.

That being said, I appreciated the novel's beautiful prose (even in a diluted English translation). Flaubert is obviously a master of his craft, and his legendary commitment in perfecting his writing definitely shows in his first novel. I wish I would've read this in college, because scholarly discussion is half the fun. I would still recommend this book, but only to those who appreciate literary masterpieces, even if they take forever to finish!

Favorite Quote: "Each smile hid a yawn of boredom, each joy a curse, each pleasure its own disgust; and the sweetest kisses only left on one's lips a hopeless longing for a higher ecstasy."