** spoiler alert **
The Touchstone was the first Edith Wharton I'd read. I really enjoyed it, particularly her excellent turns of phrase; "Genius is of small use to a woman who does not know how to do her hair" has become one of my favorite quotations.
The main character of The Touchstone is a man who is in love with a woman, and who was once loved passionately by another woman, an author (the one to whom genius was of such little use). Glennard, the man, could not return Mrs. Aubyn's love because she simply wasn't feminine enough to appeal to him. He did, however, save the letters she wrote to him.
Mrs. Aubyn having died and very little of her personal effects having survived, those letters are tremendously valuable, and Glennard sells them. He knows he is doing wrong to reveal something personal that Mrs. Aubyn would never have wanted shared, but he is also desperate for money, both for the usual reasons and because he wants to marry the woman he loves.
The shame of his behavior, however, eats away at him, damaging the marriage, especially when his wife reads the published collection of letters. Glennard imagines that his wife must know what he's done, and must hate him for it, and he gradually draws further and further away from her emotionally.
At this point, I was thinking to myself, "Well, this isn't going to have a happy ending," and kept urging Glennard to simply confess. He does finally confess, in a drawn-out and almost angry way. Contrary to my expectations, his wife forgives him, and the novella ends on a hopeful note; Glennard has begun the work of forgiving himself, and he and his wife have begun to repair their damaged relationship.
Honestly, it was that positive ending that sold the story for me. I was utterly convinced it was going to end in despair, with at least one character committing suicide and/or their marriage being completely ruined. (That kind of thing is why I read so much fantasy, Regency romance, and children's books - I like neat, happy endings. I mean, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is tremendous - the last few lines give me actual chills up and down my spine - but it's hardly what I want to read for relaxation.) I probably would have given it two stars rather than four if it had ended in a depressing way, not because of the writing but as a reflection of my own enjoyment.