House of Mirth / Edith Wharton

Wharton wrote House of Mirth at the urging of Henry James who wanted her to “do New York.”  She presents an Austen-like round of social encounters among a mixed cast of the super-rich and those dangling and angling for purchase in the upper echelons.   Lily Bart, beautiful but without means and pushing 30, feels compelled to snag a rich husband.  While the upper crust have atrophied into puppets of social decorum and displays of wealth, Lily provides wit and elegance sufficient to keep her comfortable as a beholden guest of soirees and outings.  Secretly, Lily is attached to Lawrence Selden, a lawyer who prefers independence to the shackles of social obligation.  Lily can’t imagine life without luxury, but resents the imposition of predictable behavior and preoccupations as dictated by the high and mighty.  Wharton’s forte is in capturing the flickering interplay between social events and tete-a-tetes and the psychological shifting they entail.  The plot follows familiar 19th Century lines, but Wharton’s use of striking metaphor, quotable analogies, and her conceit of theatricality in the lives of the elite strengthen this book’s hold on the reader.   Don 9/8/2017

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