I did not expect when I opened House of Mirth that I was embarking on a classical tragedy, complete with a misguided heroine, an easily swayed hero, a wicked witch, a good bit of wrong time, wrong place, and a whole lot of poor judgment, all placed in a corrupt setting. Change the language a bit and it could easily be mistaken as a Shakespearean or ancient Greek play.
It is the story of 2 years in the life of Lily Bart darling of the social elite in turn of the century New York. Lily is a complicated character. She is vain, selfish, snobbish and ornamental but she’s also smart and has this strong and somewhat incongruous sense of nobility. She knows that in order to get the beautiful and luxurious life she believes she needs she must marry well. But despite being beautiful and charming and having marriage as her main aim, she is 29 and can’t quite seem to bring herself to the point of consummation. She is convinced she cannot live without luxury but she also seems to be inwardly conflicted about living an inauthentic life. Her characterization is incredibly deft – she is frustrating but remains sympathetic throughout. And while there are a couple of people in particular who figure in Lily’s downfall, the rotten-to- the-core society and Lily herself seem equally culpable.
Edith Wharton is an incredible writer – the type of writer that produces turns of phrases and paragraphs that you want to commit to memory. This skill is on full display in House of Mirth. It’s a good story, good character study and a pretty incisive social commentary.
My one complaint is that it felt a bit overlong. The last quarter of the book drags a little.
Highly recommend but don't expect a happy or quick ending.