Victoria Olsen's Reviews > The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
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Mar 19, 12

Read from March 14 to 18, 2012

I was blown away by this book, which I gobbled up in a week. Wharton carefully composes the plot so that there is not one extraneous scene, and yet the feeling of the whole is in no way spare or simple. The descriptions-- of gardens, parlors, gowns, and even feelings--can be ravishing and they seem to accumulate over the course of the snowballing story so that the novel feels as rich and elegant as its subject. Lily Bart, though, is the central miracle, a character so complex (and unsympathetic, as Jonathan Franzen attests in a recent New Yorker article) that she seems to surprise herself over and over again, as often as she surprises us. If she is so materialistic why doesn't she seize her chances, as Mrs. Fisher would say? if she is so much better than her society peers, why can't she break free of their circle? Wharton wants us to feel the exquisitely balanced paradoxes of Lily's nature, as well as her world: how she can be so finely tuned that allowing a married man of her acquaintance to speculate on the stock market for her is acceptable, but borrowing the money from him, unknowingly, leaves a moral and social stain that can never be removed? Why won't she strike back at those who struck her? As Lily's fate unravels her moral character becomes more complicated, not less, and she assumes the role of heroine that she only seemed to fill at first. It's a strange and unexpected novel, not perfect, but Wharton pulls it off amazingly -- as Lily might.
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