January 30, 2010

Classics Circuit Tour Stop: Edith Wharton

Welcome to the final stop of the Classics Circuit Tour. I'm so excited to welcome Edith Wharton to my blog today. I'm a huge fan. If I had to name my two all time favorite authors, Wharton would be on the list, along with Ian McEwan. I've chosen to read Summer but as you will soon see, I take a broad path through all her works. Get comfy. I'm feeling long winded today.

by Edith Wharton

I was first introduced to Edith Wharton as I was reading through the classics in The Well-Educated Mind. The House of Mirth was probably my favorite book on the novel list. Since then I have read Age of Innocence, The Buccaneers, Madame de Treymes, a book of short stories, The Children, and Ethan Frome, which is my favorite by far. I've also read about 300 pages of the 800 page biography of Wharton written by Hermione Lee.

If you were to ask me why I love her writing so much I'm not sure I could articulate it well. On the surface there is nothing remarkable about the writing but once I start I must keep reading. There is no point where I stop and say, "that paragraph was poetic in it's description." The writing never, ever draws attention to it's self. It's not poetic but the descriptions are effective in drawing a picture in your mind. And every description, every setting, tells you about the story. I'll explain more in just a bit. First let me tell you what Summer is about.

Beware of Spoilers!
Rescued from the slums in the mountains, Charity Royall is being raised by her guardian in a small town near New York. After Mrs. Royall's death, Dr. Royall makes an advance on Charity, followed by a marriage proposal. Disgusted by this, Charity throws herself headfirst into a relationship with Mr. Harney. As the relationship gets more serious, Dr. Royall becomes more protective, but Charity wants no help from her lovesick guardian. She is willing to go to any lengths to escape him.

In the case of Summer, the setting has so many layers of meaning. For example, we generally have a positive idea about summertime. It's warm and we are outside a lot. Fourth of July is celebrated with picnics, BBQs, and fireworks. But summer will soon come to an end. The trees will lose their leaves. The air will become cold. The sun will fade as the sky becomes dark and grey. This mimics what will happen with Charity's hot romance. It will catch fire but it will not last.

Then there is the lovers' secret getaway. It's a ramshackled hut in the middle of the woods, heading up the Mountain that is known to hide the poverty stricken. The hideaway is first described as a cozy place that the lovers have fixed up. They've fixed some things that were falling apart. They've added a few things to make it livable. It's become a rustic home for them. Until the romance has some trouble; then it becomes a hollow shell, a make believe put together with rotting wood and torn scraps of fabric. It's compared with the hovel that Charity's mother dies in deep in the Mountains. When you look back at the setting of nearly any point in the novel you can see how it pointed to the unfortunate ending of the book. The lover's broach that meant so much to Charity but cost her so dearly. The white castoff slippers that she wears to the fireworks show with Harney. Every part of the story carries some kind of meaning. Deciphering it, peeling away the layer of the onion at each point is one of the reasons I will always be a fan of Edith Wharton. I already wish I could go back and reread the story to gain deeper insight.

Wharton's novels have another facet to them that I love. They all share a moral message. Some of the books are cautionary tales. Some are examples of people doing the right thing despite the personal cost. Life is never simple and is often messy. Each character must decide if what they want is worth what they must give up to attain it. Some make the right choice and some don't. I love this because it is life. It really is. We all must choose what we value. Sometimes the things we want cannot work together and we have to decide between the them.

While searching for a cover photo I came across this movie trailer. There is not yet a movie of Summer. It looks as if they developers are looking for funding. If it ever does become a movie I would certainly be interested in seeing it.


Rebecca Reid said...

I too have enjoyed Wharton's writing for all that I've read at least. I'm glad Ethan Frome is so highly recommended as I'm reading it for a book club next month!

I think this story sounds very good. Thanks for sharing it, and thanks for joining the Circuit!

Zibilee said...

I have read a few books by Wharton and think that she is a fabulous author. There are quite a few of her books that I haven't had the chance to read yet, but I do have a few on my shelves. I really liked this review and will be looking forward to reading Summer. Thanks for the great review!

JoAnn said...

Thanks for the review - it sounds like a good one! So glad it's waiting on my shelf.