April 24, 2008

Review: The Children

The Children
by Edith Wharton

I'm not sure where to begin in reviewing this book. I suppose I should start off by saying that I did like it. I don't think it is one of Wharton's best (that would be Ethan Frome) but it has a lot going for it. It is a drama with a lot of humour thrown in. There is tension and a bit of romance too. And it finishes in the classic Wharton style, with unfulfilled dreams.

Boyne is a 40-something, single man just returning from a long stint working in distant countries. On the boat he encounters the seven Wheater children, a group of mismatched misfits who are woefully neglected by their self absorbed parents. As he makes friends with the children they start to rely on him to influence their parents. All they want in life is to stay together. Eventually Boyne becomes their temporary guardian in an attempt to keep them from being torn apart by yet another divorce. Meanwhile, Boyne's romantic life is taking a hit.

Warning: from this point on I could not keep my mouth shut. I explain everything in great detail. If you might want to read this book for yourself someday then I suggest you stop reading now.

All of the Wheater children are endearing, if not totally lovable. They are perpetually being called "the poor little Wheaters." The eldest girl, Judith, is the rock of the group. It is her strength that has kept all the children together up til now. As her own mother says, "She's like a mother to me, I assure you."

As you follow Boyne into the lions den, the social world of the rich and elite that the Wheaters are a part of, you get to be just as frustrated as he is trying to get through to those nincompoops how their behavior is having such a negative affect on the children. Try to follow along now: the parents, Cliffe and Joyce, were married to each other and had Judith and the twins. Soon Joyce fell in love with a scoundrel and left her family to be with him. He had two children from a previous relationship but he wasn't interested in raising the children so when Joyce finally left him she took the two little ones with her. Meanwhile Cliffe had married a movie star, who soon left him with a new baby to take care of. At this point Joyce and Cliffe get back together. Now it appears that Joyce has fallen for the new tutor and Cliffe has fallen prey to a social climber. The actress mother wants her daughter back as an amusement for her new husband. And the scoundrel ex husband of Joyce has a new wife who has studied child psychology and wants to try her hand at improving the two "steps" as they are lovingly referred to. Clear as mud?

The reader is given clear eyes to see the absurdity of the situation. Personally I wanted Boyne to take the children off somewhere where their parents could never hurt them again but I fear it would have taught them no lesson. In fact, the children run away to another country but the parents barely even notice and it certainly doesn't interfere with their social calendars. Ack! The whole thing rankled my feathers.

Then we come to the romance part of the story. Boyne becomes engaged to the widow, Mrs. Sellars, whom he has had a longing for for many years, including while she was married. Now she is free to be his but he has found himself falling in love with the 15-going-on-30 year old Judith. It was a bit disturbing to contemplate Boyne and Judith together like that but fear not. She completely misses what's going on and he leaves ashamed and defeated.

So now that I have thoroughly given away the entire plot, perhaps you will not feel the need to read the book after all. It was a bit like watching a soap opera*. It was ridiculously unrealistic but tantalising enough to keep me coming back for more.

*This in no way is to be takien to mean that I do currently or have ever watched a soap opera with any regularity. In fact I have not ever been attach to such retched things even in my lowest moments. My own life has provided drama enough to keep me busy, thank you very much.


Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

I skimmed through because of spoilers (even though I don't know if I'll read this one), but your opening comment makes me want to pick up Ethan Frome. I started it a few years ago but had to put it down for some reason (school??). Guess it's time to wipe off the dust.

Petunia said...

I read Ethan Frome in one sitting, in 4.5 hours. I believe it was the way it was meant to be read. By the end I was in tears. It left an indelible impression on me.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

I'll have to check it out. When I picked it up the first time, I was reading it in my car--probably in the Texas heat--during my lunch break. :) Nothing could have made an impression on me during those circumstances! I know you love Wharton--to date the only thing I've read by her is Age of Innocence.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I have to read The Children now. And I was just at the library this afternoon.

I admit I was hopelessly addicted to All My Children and General Hospital for years. Decades even. But as my brother observed tartly, they were the only people who had lives that were similar to mine.