Originally published in 1913
Source: my copy purchased for my Nook...because I couldn't find my print copy*
A scathing yet personal examination of the exploits and follies of the modern upper class. As she unfolds the story of Undine Spragg, from New York to Europe, Wharton affords us a detailed glimpse of what might be called the interior décor of this America and its nouveau riche fringes. Through a heroine who is as vain, spoiled, and selfish as she is irresistibly fascinating, and through a most intricate and satisfying plot that follows Undine's marriages and affairs, she conveys a vision of social behavior that is both supremely informed and supremely disenchanted. - Anita Brookner
I am a little embarrassed to admit that I've been doing such a bad job with reading classics that I've sort of forgotten what it takes to read one. Patience. A time commitment. An understanding that there may not be a lot of action and there will be a lot of detail. Fortunately, because I had picked this book for my book club to read, I had to make sure I had read it.
And I'm so happy that I did because Undine Spragg turns out to be one of the great bad girls of literature. I really can't believe that her name isn't as well known as Becky Sharpe (Vanity Fair) and Scarlett O'Hara (Gone With The Wind). In fact, she may be worse than Scarlett O'Hara - Scarlett, at least, was trying to save Tara when she married again and again for money instead of love. There is nothing that Undine cares about more than Undine. As much as I disliked Becky Sharp for the better part of 700 pages, eventually I came to hope she found happiness. Undine, not so much; I never stopped disliking her.
Which just goes to show that you can dislike a character and still enjoy a book about them.
Also, that I will find pleasure in anything that Edith Wharton writes. I adore the way she skewers the privileged classes and those who aspire to join them (I do love me some snarkiness in a novel!).
"The affair was a 'scandal' and it was not in the Dagonet traditions to acknowledge the existence of scandals."I adore her descriptions:
"...her pale soft-cheeked face, with puffy eye-lids and drooping mouth, suggested a partially melted wax figure which had run to double-chin."
"...what Popple called society was really just like the houses it lived in: a middle of misapplied ornament over a thin steel shell of utility. The steel shell was built up in Wall Street, the social trimmings were hastily added in Fifth Avenue: and the union between them was as monstrous and factitious, as unlike the gradual homogenous growth which flowers into what other countries know as society, as that between the Blois gargoyles on Peter Van Degen's roof and the skeleton walls supporting them."Most of all, I adore the way she sees the truth of people:
"Mabel had behaved 'beautifully.' But it is comparatively easy to behave beautifully when one is getting what one wants, and when someone else, who has not always been altogether kind, is not."I must admit that I had my doubts about choosing Wharton for book club. But it was a success; while people acknowledged that it was slow going getting started, they got more and more wrapped up in it and found they had to find out what would happen to Undine. Undine never disappointed. And neither did Wharton.
*I have a very old copy of this book. I'm pretty sure that I've used it somewhere around the house for decorative purposes. Therein lies the problem with decorating with books!