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The Custom of the Country

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  8,754 ratings  ·  840 reviews
Considered by many to be her masterpiece, Edith Wharton's second full-length 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. Thr ...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…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…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)

Community Reviews

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4.03  · 
Rating details
 ·  8,754 ratings  ·  840 reviews

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Petra Eggs
Nov 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Recommended to Vessey by: Candi
Shelves: 4-stars, dark

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
“Poor Undine! She was what the gods had made her--a creature of skin-deep reactions, a mote in the beam of pleasure.”

Borne along by her exquisite beauty Undine Spragg sets out to get everything she wants. And usually she does get everything she wants. “It was an observation they had made in her earliest youth--Undine never wanted anything long, but she wanted it “right off.” And until she got it the house was uninhabitable.”

At the start of the novel the wealthy (but not wealthy enough) Spragg
Nov 06, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: mommy's little monsters; unsympathetic heroines; american girls
Recommended to Jessica by: sister rachel; mother dear
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
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
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

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.
Mar 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: lovers of elegant early-twentieth-century fiction
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 and im
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 Hô
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
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
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 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: any reader of serious fiction
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
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: americans, ficciones
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
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
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 Country
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
Some quick thoughts:

I think this would make an excellent entry-level Wharton novel for a young reader who does not fully grasp the realities of the Old World and the Old New York, but is ready to learn.

The protagonist, like many people in our time, strives after a certain lifestyle, the details of which become clearer with her apparently fairy-tale social ascent, as she grows aware of what is available, or unavailable, to her.
Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she w
Mar 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1-favorites
Scarlett O'Hara worthy!

I didn't want to enjoy the nasty manipulations, the thoroughly narcissistic preoccupation with self at the sacrifice of others, and the vanity of the beautiful Undine, but I did! Thoroughly entertaining. A few surprises in the plot twists although the characters remained solidly who they are, as Maya Angelou said...
Dov Zeller
Jul 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Now I see that Edith Wharton is a true master of the craft. This novel is not perhaps innovative, but bold it is, and sharp as can be.

This is a long one. A real commitment (which is ironic given the subject matter). But it's worth it!

Basically, it's about the adventures of Undine Spragg, an unscrupulous American beauty who is short on empathy and long on desire for social status and, it seems, innocent fun at dinner parties (though she's happy to harm anyone who gets in the way of this fun. So c
Elizabeth (Alaska)
The custom of the country: money is the driving influence - wives are too busy spending it and husbands are too busy making it and neither cares enough beyond the money to pay attention to the other. Well, that's sort of the premise. It's certainly true for Undine Spragg, our main character. She is irresistibly beautiful, it seems, and men are attracted to her like moths to a flame on a summer evening. Money is essential to Undine - essential to making sure the right people notice her, because b ...more
Jun 24, 2012 rated it really liked it
An excellent book. I can see that Edith Wharton and I will be spending a lot more time together.

The heroine of the story, Undine Spragg, is a spoiled, shallow, self-centered, conniving social climber. She is supremely unsympathetic, equally as fascinating as she is repellent. Her goal is to position herself within privileged society and she pursues this end with ruthless determination. But as the saying goes, you should be careful what you wish for. Undine finds that marrying into "the right" fa
Carol Storm
Jun 28, 2016 rated it it was ok
I loved THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, but this Edith Wharton novel just did not work for me. I get the fact that Undine Spragg is supposed to be a cold and heartless social climber. She's the kind of girl you see in books all the time, but rarely in real life. She gets away with murder. She breaks hearts and ruins lives without ever feeling remorse or really getting what she wants.

This is a type that has been done before. Many, many times before. Becky Sharp? Scarlett O'Hara?

Edith Wharton hates Undine S
Susan L
Jul 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The title, Custom of the Country (1913,) alludes to the different perceptions of marriage in early 20th Century Paris and New York. Undine Spragg, a materialist girl of the Gilded Age, uses her striking Pre-Raphaelite beauty to marry into wealth and social privilege. Casualities of ambition include her American husband and neglected son.

Undine is beautiful, shallow but oddly likeable. Each marriage is a story within the meta-narrative. Her Parisian union to the Marquis de Chelles (a clever pun
Jacob Appel
Mar 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Real Housewives of NYC, Consuelo Vanderbilt
1. The Custom of the Country is kind of Vanity Fair for Americans in the early 20th century (unless it is the late 19th century!). Admittedly, I haven't read Vanity Fair so I am talking from osmosis here, but Becky Sharp's come far enough in the cultural consciousness that the parallels are extremely tempting. Undine Spragg is the kind of beautiful but unscrupulous woman who claws her way upwards, shedding husbands and nevertheless obsessing over respectability. Scarlett O'Hara, who came later, ...more
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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
“Her failure was a useful preliminary to success.” 16 likes
“She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” 11 likes
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