Thursday, August 11, 2011
The 2010 - 2011 Book Reading Project -- Part Five (Edith Wharton)
All I could think as I was starting this book was, "why the hell had I wasted time reading Plague of Shadows?". Wharton didn't normally set her stories in rural environs or people them with the working class, but she absolutely got everything right here. It perfectly evokes the sensation of desperation of struggling with unspoken, perhaps forbidden love. At the same time, Wharton is working a masculine version of Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman's "A New England Nun" (1891) with more of an emotional impact because there is a commitment to more than the self of the protagonist. I'd like to call John Cusack up and ask him to apologize for his criticism of Ethan Frome in Grosse Point Blank (1997).
"Expiation" is clearly self-referential, but it is telling of Wharton's opinion on gender roles and social reaction to literary criticism. "Xingu" is perhaps the most timeless piece of Wharton's that I have read. A scathing look at the pretension of money masquerading as intellectual and moral worth, "Xingu" is both biting and laugh out loud funny. The best story in the collection, however, is "The Dilettante". Seriously, if in 1994 – or more likely '95, as it would have given me some time to reflect – someone had set this story before me and simply said "get it?" afterwards, I wouldn't have spent the late 1990s and emotional wreck. There is nothing glorious in being an asshole, and Wharton found a way to perfectly dissect the emotionally manipulative man down to the scared, weak creature he really is.
I remember going off the college thinking that most female authors had nothing important to say. Well, stupid me (of course). But I also want to fault the school systems that wanted to force Austen and the Brontë sisters upon me and act as though they were as insightful as Wharton, Cather, or even Kate Chopin. I have more Wharton on my to-read list – we'll see if I can hack a whole novel of her writing – and I look forward to it much more than I would any George R.R. Martin (I didn't enjoy his 'New' Twilight Zone episodes) or Anne McCaffery books.