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Review: Old New York, by Edith Wharton


Pages: 315
Original date of publication: 1924
My copy: 1995 (Scribner paperbacks)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired by copy: Amazon.com, April 2011

Old New York is a collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York in the 1840s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, which reveal varying sides of upper class New York society at the time. Each of the four novellas digs deep below the surface of society. False Dawn chronicles the relationship between a father and son, the latter of whom goes off to Europe on a Grand Tour and brings home “unsuitable” artwork; in The Old Maid, a young woman’s daughter is adopted by her cousin; The Spark, the shortest of the four, is about a young man’s encounter with Walt Whitman during the Civil War; and the last, New Year’s Day, is about a young woman’s alleged adulterous affair.

Edith Wharton is skilled at describing people and her motivations; she’s especially adept at seeing the way her characters really are. There’s no “real” link between these stories, but the overarching theme of all of them, as with her novels, is the class system, and how these characters fit—or don’t fit—into that system. The stories also focus heavily on women’s roles in society: expectations versus reality, as well as familial relationships. By far the best of the four stories was The Old Maid; it’s much longer and the characters are much more well rounded. The weakest story in the collection is The Spark; Wharton had a good idea, but she didn’t explore it fully enough.

Edith Wharton has a habit of including recurring characters in her short stories; Mrs Manson Mingott, Sillerton Jackson, Mrs. Struthers, and Henry Vander Luyden from The Age of Innocence appear here as well. Although I didn’t think this collection of stories was particularly even, I did enjoy it.


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