Do you have an author in whose works you repeatedly get stuck?
You’re just sure you’re going to love them, but you can’t seem to read them?
That’s what had happened with me and Edith Wharton.
Well, that’s not entirely true, for we got along just fine in Ethan Frome.
But longer works? I haven’t yet crossed the 50-page line with either The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth.
And I’m still flummoxed by this, because I finally did read one of her longer works last December, and I wholly enjoyed it.
Okay, that’s not entirely true either, because it took me more than 100 pages to actually believe that I could read that novel; I hovered around the 50-page mark for a good spell.
And, even afterwards, it took me a good while to get hooked on the idea of finding out what Undine’s next exploit would be. To get hooked on Undine.
Maybe that’s partly the reason why I deliberated for so long?
Maybe I had the idea — based on what? movie trailers maybe? — that I would like Wharton’s heroines.
Whereas Undine isn’t at all likeable.
“Undine’s estimate of people had always been based on their apparent power of getting what they wanted – provided it came under the category of things she understood wanting.”
But even though she is not likeable, she is believable.
And Edith Wharton draws her consistently, sustains her unlikeability throughout The Custom of the Country.
What Wharton does with Undine is what I longed for Margaret Mitchell to do with Scarlett.
It’s no wonder that “the narrow compass of her experience” grates on the reader. But Undine is beautiful and she presents well.
“The task of opening new windows in her mind was inspiring enough to give him infinite patience; and he would not yet own to himself that her pliancy and variety were imitative rather than spontaneous.”
Even the man she marries has to adjust his expectations. He “laughed in pure enjoyment of her beauty. When she shone on him like that what did it matter what nonsense she talked?”
But Undine has expectations, too. She wants something more. She wants to be seen. She wants, wants, and wants some more. And she chases that desire throughout The Custom of the Country.
“The sense of having been thus rendered invisible filled Undine with a vehement desire to make herself seen, and an equally strong sense that all attempts to do so would be vain….”
The novel moves slowly through time at the beginning; Undine’s struggle to engage with society (or Society) in NYC is spun out so that the reader feels something of her sense of being excluded. But after Undine marries, the arc widens, and things get complicated.
“The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway-crossing.”
The turnings of Undine’s life are increasingly inward; Undine becomes more Undine-y as the years pass, and it creates this sense of can’t-read-on and can’t-look-away.
“She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.”
I owe my persistence through The Custom of the Country to Laura, who convinced me that this was a book that I would appreciate (EW is one of her favourite authors); she didn’t know about the sticky relationship that I’ve had with Edith, and that’s no matter, for everything’s been smoothed over between me and Edith now.
Do you have a sticky relationship with an author’s works?