This isn't among my favorite Wharton novels, but it's a compelling and thought-provoking story. My favorite thing about it is that the writing feels very mature. It may not be the most important story Wharton ever had to tell, but her command of language seems to be at its peak.
Kate Clephane, having left her husband 18 years ago, lives her life in European exile among people like "the Horace Betterlys and their dull noisy friends, who wanted to 'see life' and didn't know that you can't see it unless you've first had the brains to imagine it."
Later, she meets an old friend who insists that her happiest days are still ahead of her:
As he blinked at her with kindly brotherly eyes she saw in their ingenuous depths the terror of the man who has tried to buy off fate by one optimistic evasion after another, till it has become second nature to hand out his watch and pocketbook whenever reality waylays him.
She exchanged one glance with that lurking fear; then she said: "Yes; you're right, I suppose."
The book goes on like that. As I read, I was underlining something on almost every page because so many of the observations seemed smart or were beautifully written.
Like most of Edith Wharton's heroines, Kate Clephane winds up trapped between her own strong emotions and equally strong social expectations. There's an intensely physical element to the novel's central problem -- a conflict between Kate's physical and social identity as a mother and her left-over feelings for a former lover. In the end, she makes one choice that's different from what I think I would have done, and one choice that's exactly what I would have done.