69. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Year Published: 1905
Pages: 332
First Sentence: Selden paused in surprise.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

I hardly know where to begin with this one. As much as I grumble about them, most of the other books from The List so far have been possessed of layers and nuance, but I think The House of Mirth is the first one that's made me want to read it all over again immediately to really understand what's going on here, exactly. (And likely it wouldn't've helped.)

Let me try to explain.

Lily Bart is a beautiful young woman falling from brink to brink. She hasn't managed to find a husband yet when the book begins, although she rather quickly manages to draw the interest of an exceedingly boring and rich young man. Just as quickly, she sabotages his interest and ends up asking her friend's husband, Gus Trenor, to help her with making some investments to get some money.

Here I parted ways with my intelligence, because it took me forever to realize that Gus was straight up giving Lily money, rather than using hers or making any investments at all.

In debt to another woman's husband, things go from bad to worse for Lily. By the end of the book, her house is anything but mirthful. The "Selden" who appears in the first sentence is the man she might end up with, if not for his dickishness in her several hours of need. Also probably her pride.

If this sounds uninteresting and basic, it's because I'm doing a bad job of explaining it. Edith Wharton is amazing. Despite a few conspicuous similes (this is barely a complaint), her writing is fantastic. Jamesian* influences are obvious, but I think she might actually be a better writer. Her characters at least are as firmly drawn in about one quarter the number of words that James would use to accomplish the same. Plus it's funny when it's not very tragic.

Lily Bart is the best female protagonist of The List so far, too, with many of the others in a distant second (although I should give honourable mention to Susan Ward from Angle of Repose). Oh my God, though. Piteous and infuriating by turns, I still don't know how I feel about her and her actions over the course of the book.

You guys, I'm flailing here, obviously, and I'm going to blame it either on this book being mind-blowing, or the fact that I'm no longer capable of sleeping past 8:00 am. But I really encourage you to read this book. It's like the tragic version of A Room with a View.

*I know we haven't talked about Henry James yet for The List, but I've read a couple of his books before (The Bostonians and Portrait of a Lady, neither of which merited a spot apparently) and really look forward to the ones that show up in the upper half of The List. He's kind of awesome.

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If I could only do over my aunt's drawing-room I know I should be a better woman.
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"Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up; but, gad, there isn't a break in the lines anywhere, and I suppose she wanted us to know it!"
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But the idealist subdued to vulgar necessities must employ vulgar minds to draw the inferences to which he cannot stoop; and it was easier for Lily to let Mrs. Fisher formulate her case than to put it plainly to herself.
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