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The Custom of the Country

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  12,122 ratings  ·  1,317 reviews
Considered by many to be her masterpiece, Edith Wharton's epic work is a scathing yet personal examination of the exploits and follies of the modern upper class. As she unfolds the story of Undine Spragg, from New York to Europe, Wharton affords us a detailed glimpse of what might be called the interior décor of this America and its nouveau riche fringes. Through a heroine ...more
Paperback, 370 pages
Published September 28th 2006 by Penguin Classics (first published 1913)
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Kamila I wouldn't say it's dry at all. The plot moves along at a good clip, and if you don't read any introductory essays with spoilers, there's a fair amoun…moreI wouldn't say it's dry at all. The plot moves along at a good clip, and if you don't read any introductory essays with spoilers, there's a fair amount of suspense, with a few twists toward the end. I think the character of Undine Spragg will inspire some lively conversation!(less)
This question contains spoilers... (view spoiler)
Jane Undine is an elemental water spirit, a mythological creature. Truly a perfect name for our unsympathetic heroine, with her glorious red hair, pale ski…moreUndine is an elemental water spirit, a mythological creature. Truly a perfect name for our unsympathetic heroine, with her glorious red hair, pale skin, and green eyes. Except that Wharton has Undine's parents naming her after a patented hair curling device briefly peddled by her father. Her son Paul is cared for by Ralph's mother and sister before Undine sends for him.(less)

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Petra: all work & no play makes you poor.On hiatus
It was fashionable at one time to send rich American girls who had everything over to Europe in order to acquire a title from an impoverished aristocrat who was none too fussy about his bride so long as she came with a very generous papa. Some of them, like the extremely despicable Lady Rose Astor (view spoiler) really became part of their adoptive country and others, like our heroine, ...more
Mar 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: dark, 4-stars

Social gold does not always glitter

Edith Wharton did not have a happy life. Nor do her characters. What is happiness anyway, if not merely a part of our lives, something we all pursue, but rarely, if ever, possess in a clean, full form? We are destined to fail. We are imperfect by design. And Undine Spragg is one of the most imperfect characters I have come across. Actually, imperfect is an understatement. She is a walking disaster. A woman almost completely devoid of empathy and self-re
So I had totally committed my schedule to having lengthy tea with a brilliant Oxford professor of incredible intelligence, unsurpassed insight, and fabled dry wit. And while I know that my extended afternoon with Dr. George Eliot would have proven to be a fascinating and immensely edifying experience that I would've remembered for the rest of my life, I still did the bad thing and just blew her off. Yes, I ditched the eminent Dr. Eliot to drink ice cream sodas and read celebrity gossip magazines ...more
Jul 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017, parenting
Edith Wharton has fixed Henry James, whose essential problem is that he's a pain in the ass. He's smart and all, if that's what you're into, but he's never been known to end a sentence and he has this perverse refusal to write the interesting parts of stories. It's weird, right? It's like if the Death Star blew up off screen and the movie ended with people discussing it. "That was crazy how that just blew right up, huh?" "Yeah, at first I thought we weren't going to win, but in the end we did!" ...more
Jun 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This book is amazing. No one writes like this anymore -- in fact, after I finished this, I had a hard time getting into a more contemporary novel, because the newer book felt so spare and empty compared to Wharton's thoughtful and lovely prose. Certain paragraphs of Custom of the Country made me stop and just admire her craft; she conveys so much depth of thought in so few sentences, with precision and elegance that I've never encountered elsewhere and could never even begin to replicate. It ble ...more
Nov 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
Someone once advised Edith Wharton, I think it was Henry James, to be successful in writing you should focus on subjects that you are familiar with and understand. For Wharton, that was New York, and the privileged upper crust society of which she was a part. Aside from Ethan Frome, her most beloved novels are three that captured the essence of this society and it's people, The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), and The Age of Innocence (1920).

The Custom of the Country pr

Edith Wharton's gift was her twenty twenty vision of the society she lived in, New York at the beginning of the 20th century. The moral of this complicated but satisfying tale seems to be that without the well established customs to be found in old Europe, people in the new world are adrift and have nothing better to aspire to than wealth and celebrity status. The irony is that her conclusions could apply to the Europe of today.
Glenn Sumi
Feb 21, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 1900-1960, classics
Is Undine Spragg the most odious fictional character ever?

I know The Custom of the Country is more than a century old, but Undine Spragg is certainly one of the most despicable characters in all of literature. She uses people. She’s vain. She lies. She’s horribly superficial. She treats her child like a pawn. She’s greedy. Long before the term was coined, she was a shop-a-holic. All she cares about is looking fashionable and making her way up society. And once she’s there, she’s bored and wants
Alas, Undine! What a fatal, restless passion you have--not for men themselves--but for their admiration, and for the money and possessions they might bring you. You do so love your ropes of pearls!

And how utterly miserable you make yourself and everyone around you. Can anyone in this glittering world ever satisfy your insatiable lust for more and still more things? Will you settle for a fine apartment, perhaps on Fifth Avenue--surely the West Side is not enough?

Or perhaps you'd fancy a grand H
Think Edith Wharton only wrote novels about nice people who fall victim to society's uncongenial mores? Then The Custom of the Country may come as a bit of a surprise to you. Far from a dignified, morally superior character, the book's heroine, the beautiful but vulgar Undine Spragg, is a selfish monster who takes society (or rather, several different societies) head on, suffers a bit for her lack of subtlety but comes out filthy rich. Unless you're a gold-digger yourself, you'll find Undine har ...more
Jul 07, 2016 rated it liked it
" On her side "
Come Again? Pardon? Huh?

March 8, 2017

Open Letter to Baron Fellowes of West Stafford (Lord Julian Fellowes):

After reading the novel The Custom of the Country , I read that you attribute to this novel your success with, among other endeavors, the popular series Downton Abbey, and the part of your speech accepting the 2012 Edith Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award when you said:
"It is quite true that I felt this was my book; that the novel was talking to me in a most extreme an
Sara (taking a break)
Aug 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
My new favorite writer is Edith Wharton. I have read four of her wonderful novels this year and I intend to read all of the others in time. She is one of the sharpest observers of mankind that I have ever come across. You could believe that she sat and studied the people around her and then drew them in flesh and blood (that often ran red) on the sheets of paper in front of her. They are real, they breathe, and they make me wish to cry with them, comfort them or slap them with a fervor that is g ...more
luce (currently recovering from a hiatus)
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Step aside, Becky Sharp. Move over, Scarlett O'Hara...make way for Undine Spragg, the most unscrupulous anti-heroine I have ever encountered.

“[S]he could not conceive that any one could tire of her of whom she had not first tired.”

Wharton once again focuses her narrative on a young woman’s unrelenting attempts at social climbing. While Wharton does inject her depiction of Undine Spragg's ‘trials’ with a dose of satire she nevertheless is able to carry out an i
Anne (On semi-hiatus)
Brilliant character study of a Narcissist, Undine Spragg, and the varying fates and responses of the people who love her or come under her thrall. Beautifully narrated by Barbara Caruso.
May 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio
Edith Wharton understood a certain type of woman as well or better than anyone who ever wrote a book. Undine was narcissistic, beautiful, manipulative, clever (but not overly intelligent or curious), and, above all, ambitious. She was more ruthless and eviscerating than a mafia don.

Eventually, one of her captivated followers might notice her complete lack of concern for anyone but herself and her lack of interest in anything other than shopping or dining. Some even began to find her boring, but
Olive Fellows (abookolive)
Check out my analysis of Undine Spragg over on Booktube! ...more
Sep 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
[4+] Shrewd and shallow, Undine is constantly striving for more... more status, more money, more love. I felt no sympathy for her but was nevertheless riveted to Wharton’s brilliant, ruthless character study.
Anthea Syrokou
Jan 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If I had to choose an author who has created one of the most selfish, snooty and self-absorbed leading ladies, I think Edith Wharton would be a strong contender. The protagonist in The Custom of the Country, Undine Spragg, (yes, that’s her name — Undie for short) has got to be all that and more. Set in New York and Paris in 1913, this novel captures the frivolous, self-indulgent antics of the rich upper class at the time.

I wanted to see the character of Undine grow and learn from many of her mis
Jun 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
I have a saying which is that the greatest trick that man ever pulled was to convince women that they are free. I’m sure many of you are raising your eyebrows at that. I’m serious though. Years ago men tried to control women by keeping them locked up in housework, in children, in piety. Then we realised that by doing so, although we posses them, we aren’t benefitting from it in the way that we would like. No, what we want, what we have always wanted, is for them to look nice, to leave us alone t ...more
Aug 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: classics, favorites
...However, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.

Edith Wharton dazzles again! This time we meet only child and rich spoiled brat, Undine Spragg, who is on a mission to ingratiate herself in New York's upperclass society but is having trouble making the best of her limited funds and connections. How is a beautiful and charming girl to be taken seriously when all that matters in thi
May 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The most Balzacian of Wharton's novels. ~~ A monumental epic of America (1913) lurching into materialistic vulgarity as personified by an intriguing Gatsbyesque financial manipulator and a Becky Sharp from "Vanity Fair" who is detestable. Wharton spent almost 5 years writing this, off and on, w time out for short stories and "Ethan Frome." A brutal, pessimistic view that some critics say kept her from winning the Nobel Prize. Clearly, Wharton is appalled by her own anti-heroine who has no moral ...more
Roman Clodia
Jun 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Despite this being just over a hundred years old now (published 1913), it feels completely modern as Wharton casts a disenchanted eye over American mores and the products of American consumerist culture.

Undine Spragg (hilariously, her nouveau riche parents named her for a curling tong her father invented!), is the ultimate consumer and believes her beauty entitles her to wealth, material possessions and social status. Uneducated though not stupid, she manipulates her way through the book, colle
Feb 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: challenge
A very good read, although I didn't find it as moving as The House of Mirth.

What a 'heroine' Edith Wharton has created in Undine. I spent most of the book longing for her to get her comeuppance. You'll have to read the book yourself to find out whether or not she did!

There was a part near the middle where I thought the story was becoming a bit slow moving, but the final third certainly ratcheted things up. I thought the description of the Chateau de Saint Desert was brilliant.

Definitely worth re
Sep 29, 2007 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ficciones, americans
I love The Age of Innocence but I wonder if that love is a fluke. I never finished The House of Mirth because of its coincidental encounters and melodramatic confrontations, and I was able to pass over similar faults in The Custom of the Country only because the often clunky dramatic scenes are separated by long stretches of brilliantly measured descriptive prose, acerbic dissections of manners and motivations. Also, I wanted to know how it would end. There’s a page-turning fascination to the ad ...more
Jul 01, 2022 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was going to give this novel 2 stars, but the last 100 pages or so were much better than other parts of the book (in my opinion), which to me dragged along in a number of places. So, 3 stars for me. I liked ‘The Age of Innocence’ [3.5 stars], ‘The House of Mirth’ [4 stars], and ‘Ethan Frome’ (read this a long time ago and then a month ago for a re-read, 3.5 stars) more than this one, however. I appear to be in the minority, at least after reading the reviews I have read so far. And Goodreads r ...more
Throughout the entire novel, I just kept thinking of my youngest son’s favorite childhood book— If You Give A Mouse a Cookie.

That’s the entire storyline, right up until the ending.

Undine Spragg is thoroughly unlikeable, but she is the most committed mouse in this book where the newly rich meet the Guilded Age Society.

Amazingly this century-old classic holds up and despite not liking the main character, I couldn’t help but respect her brutal Scarlett O’Hara qualities!
Oct 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: classics
I very much enjoyed this story of Undine Spragg who, in 1867 wants more. The reader goes along for the ride as Undine tries to work her way up the social ladder thinking each new step will make her happier. And guess what -- well... you know the answer ;)
And if you're familiar at all with Edith Wharton, you know there's always a little twist in the end, and this one was in the very last sentence! I'm glad I finally got to this one.
Oct 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
Published in 1913, “The Custom of the Country” depicts the lures and dangers of materialism in New York at a time when fashionable people boarded or lived in hotels. The quest for wealth and upward social mobility is a normal human ambition – an ancient drive that never grows old. It is a common enough theme but Wharton’s exploration is epic via an anti-heroine who is vile and yet so irresistible.

This is my fourth Wharton novel and I marvel at her flair for creating beautiful, vain, and self-ser
Nov 12, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Oh Undine!

I have to address you, but I must confess that I am very nearly lost for words. I have never met anyone quite like you – in fact or in fiction – and you have made such an impression. You really are a force of nature. You had to be, to have lived the life that you have lived.

Looking back it’s hard to believe that you were the daughter of a self-made man, that you came from Apex in North Carolina. But, of course, you were the apple of your parents’ eyes, and they were prepared to invest
Aug 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The "In" Crowd
By Dobie Gray

I'm in with the in crowd
I go where the in crowd goes
I'm in with the in crowd
And I know what the in crowd knows
Any time of the year, don't you hear?
Dressin' fine, makin' time
We breeze up and down the street
We get respect from the people we meet
They make way day or night
They know the in crowd is out of sight
I'm in with the in crowd
I know every latest dance
When you're in with the in crowd
It's easy to find romance

The heroine of Wharton’s The Custom of the Countr
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Edith Newbold Jones was born into such wealth and privilege that her family inspired the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses." The youngest of three children, Edith spent her early years touring Europe with her parents and, upon the family's return to the United States, enjoyed a privileged childhood in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Edith's creativity and talent soon became obvious: By the a ...more

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