The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

First read: 4/2003
Reviewed on: 4/7/2003

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I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

Should we get my pretentious observations out of the way first, so we don't have to deal with them later? Yes, let's:

1) This book reminded me of Fellini's La Dolce Vita. I didn't mind, because I liked La Dolce Vita. I wonder if Fellini had read The House of Mirth.

2) I wrote this in the back cover after I was a quarter of the way into it: The House Of Mirth : Pride and Prejudice:: Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead : Hamlet. While reading this book, I often felt like I was backstage at Pride and Prejudice, poking around the life of a minor character in the background of the tale of the Bennets and the Darcys.

I purchased several books from the list, and then a good Internet friend suggested we read one together. Mirth was the only one we both owned, so we agreed to read it at the same time. We haven't been online at the same time since, so I have no idea if she's read it or not. But I know that she liked it. Why? Because this was one of the Best Novels of All Time, and how can someone not like one of the Best Novels of All Time, right?

I enjoyed this book. I reveled in it. Laurel's mother was staying with us; she came to visit because she wanted to see a show I was directing. What did I do on Saturday when we had company and I had a show to prepare for? I read this book. I didn't want to stop when my eyes were drooping from lack of sleep on Saturday night after a late cast party. But I think about two similar books that annoyed me - To The Lighthouse and Pride and Prejudice. While admiring the writing of the former, I didn't enjoy reading it. The latter was "pleasing" but I wasn't completely riveted by it.

Okay, let me put it this way. I got Laurel a fishtank for Valentine's Day. ("Awwwww..." yeah, yeah, shut up.) We got four "hardy" fish, and they died. We got another set of four "hardy" fish, and they died. We got some more, and they are living. The pet store owner said that this was completely common, that he considers the first fish you put in a tank "sacrificial" in that they often die while changing the biosphere of a tank to a form conducive to fish-life. Even though they don't live, they change the quality of the water so that the next batch have an easier time of it. Maybe Lighthouse and Pride had that role for me. I didn't enjoy them, but they changed my brain to accept this kind of Well Mannered writing, where the main conflict is Will the Heroine Marry Well or Poorly? So that's one theory - I liked this book better than the others because the genre is an Acquired Taste.

But I have another theory - maybe this book was just plain old Better. I'm thinking that. This one felt like a Greek Tragedy using the trappings of a Romance Novel, just as sometimes Shakespeare is done in costumes from different eras. The plot was often suspenseful. You could say that it was only suspenseful to me because I'm not familiar enough with the genre, or you could say that it was extremely well written and the characters acted in surprising (yet consistent to their nature) ways.

Lily fascinated me. She didn't fall into either the "Society Type who Likes It" category or the "Society Type who wants to Rebel" category. She went back and forth, and was just so much more thoughtful than she was supposed to be, but not quite thoughtful enough. The other characters were more stereotypical, but that worked for me. The more 2D they were, the more 3D she looked by comparison. Like she was suddenly realizing that they were all characters in a novel, but she was the only one who saw it.

Having finished this book, all I want to do now is see La Dolce Vita again.

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