I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.
I just finished reading The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton for the first time, and it has shot up to my short list of very-favorite books (which also includes Emma by Jane Austen, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling); then there’s a larger second tier of favorites that includes Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, A Tale of Two Cities, Anna Karenina, 1984, Frankenstein, The Scarlet Letter, and the rest of the Harry Potter books). The House of Mirth might even earn the status of being my single favorite book, but I’ll let more time elapse to make sure.
For now, I am just kind of walking around with my jaw hanging open at the beauty and power of this story. I can’t say I “love” it because that seems too light a word. I “love” Jane Austen’s books, but this is no Jane Austen; if I use the word “love” for The House of Mirth, I’ll have to say it in a hushed, reverent whisper.
First of all, Wharton’s writing in this book is stunningly perfect, at least in my opinion. Her style is beautiful and packed with insight, the pacing is so exquisite that I could hardly put the book down, the story is heavy but richly, poignantly so, and the characters—oh, the characters…
I connected very personally with the main character, Lily Bart, partly because of Wharton’s superb characterization and partly because I’m just a lot like Lily. Like her, I’m idealistic and willful, planning and scheming, inclined to read people’s feelings and shape my behavior accordingly, driven toward my ambitions yet always ultimately bowing to my heart’s desires (even when I’m not fully aware of them), and ruled by inexorable self-confidence and self-belief (even when that belief is misguided). For example, this line could describe me, too:
“If she was faintly aware of fresh difficulties ahead, she was sure of her ability to meet them; it was characteristic of her to feel that the only problems she could not solve were those with which she was familiar.”
Yep, that’s me, unfortunately. I think Jane Austen’s Emma also shares some of those attributes I listed, which is a big reason why that’s another of my very-favorite novels. I feel less encumbered by these flaws of mine when I know there are others—at least, in fiction—who battle them and ultimately triumph over them to become more virtuous. That’s the power of good fiction!
But back to The House of Mirth. I can’t say much about the story itself for fear of giving spoilers, though there’s so much I could say. But instead I will just say that now, after finishing the book, I feel a hole in my life for lack of being immersed in the story. Once again, the power of good fiction!
I said the writing was perfect, but there was actually one little flaw that I stumbled over. (Again, this is just according to my own opinion as a reader, which I think is what really matters, anyway.) Several times toward the beginning of the novel, Wharton describes characters in ways that seem a bit lazy, like she’s just copying her thought process into the text and exposing the mechanical workings underneath the story. For example: “Mrs. Peniston was one of the episodical persons who form the padding of life.” See what I mean? This sort of thing happened a few times, and it seemed more “cop-out” than cute to me. But I’m sure the only reason I even noticed it is that Wharton is such a superb characterist in everything she writes that when she’s not giving it her best, it’s a huge contrast. I am deeply in awe of her skill.
Here are a few examples of Wharton’s eloquence in this novel:
“No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity.”
So eloquent. This one is also superbly insightful:
“She had the art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed, but she was not equally sure of being able to embarrass the self-confident.”
Yes! And I know some people like this:
“Mr. Rosedale…was slipping through the crowd with an air half obsequious, half obtrusive, as though the moment his presence was recognized, it would swell to the dimensions of the room.”
Haha! This one is a little more complex. My favorite part is the end of it. I wrote in my post “Learning the Art of Beautiful Conversation” about the importance of letting other people express their pain to us rather than shutting them up with hyper-sympathy and injunctions to think positively, and this is a much better way of saying that:
“As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude but compassion holding its breath.”
Finally, this one packs more punch set in the context of the story, but it is still beautiful standing alone:
“The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life and build herself a shelter with them seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence. It was a meagre enough life, on the grim edge of poverty, with scant margin for possibilities of sickness or mischance, but it had the frail, audacious permanence of a bird’s nest built on the edge of a cliff—a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss.”
In summary: wow—what a book!