Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review: The Customs of the Country, by Edith Wharton


Pages: 413
Original date of publication: 1913
My edition: 2010 (Vintage classics)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Barnes and Noble, July 2012

I read The Customs of the Country before I learned that Edith Wharton is currently the subject of an article in this month's issue of Vogue magazine, entitled “The Customs of the Country.” I just about died. How did I not know about this before???? Supermodel Natalia Vodianova plays Edith Wharton,  and several famous actors and authors play various people in her life, including Jeffrey Eugenides as Henry James (gasp! A win-win combination in my book, pun intended). It looks as though Edith Wharton is having a bit of a revival at the moment; a cache of her letters has been published recently, in conjunction with the fact that this year is the 150th anniversary of her birth. In addition, Vintage Classics have reprinted several of her novels, including this one, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and The Age of Innocence, all with simple and simply beautiful covers. 

Edith Wharton was notoriously both fascinated by and contemptuous of New York society, and The Customs of the Country is another such novel in which she skewers her characters and the world in which they live. The Customs of the Country is the story of Undine Spragg, a rapaciously acquisitive young woman who constantly strives for more. She and her parents come to New York City, having recently hit the apex of society in the aptly-named midwestern town of Apex, and Undine is on a quest to marry well and acquire money and power. Yet Undine is constantly an outsider looking in, someone that true high-class New York society doesn’t take completely seriously.

She marries Ralph Marvel, a man with whom she couldn’t be more incompatible. Ralph’s family have come down in the world, and Ralph is an artistic type who would rather be composing poetry than working a 9-5 job on Wall Street. The novel chronicles Undine’s adventures in marriage, her scandalous affairs, from New York to France and back again. Meanwhile, a shocking secret from Undine's path threatens to reveal itself and spoil all her plans. 

I was intrigued by the author's choice of the name Undine for her protagonist. An undine is a water spirit, said to gain a soul by marrying and having a child. So you might easily see the connection between the mythological creature and Undine Spragg and the hope that Wharton might have had for her main character as she created her. There's also the German folktale of Ondine, in which a woman curses her unfaithful husband to cease breathing. Shoe-on-the-other-foot syndrome, maybe? You get the sense that Edith Wharton was not only fascinated with the monster she created, but repelled by her actions at the same time. As such, the reader doesn’t quite know whether to dislike Undine or laugh at her, because half the time her antics are really quite ridiculous. At the end of the day, though, the reader has to wonder: what’s all of this social striving for? To what end? That’s why this novel is sometimes tinged with a hint of sadness.



2 comments:

Beth said...

I'm trying not to read your review too closely since I have this one on my classics club list, but I'm glad to hear you liked it! The Vogue issue sounds intriguing--will have to check that out. Thanks for sharing.

Mystica said...

A new one from this author for me. Sounds a bit different.

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