Shortly after moving to Cleveland, I met Claire McMillan, who told me she’d written an updated version of Wharton’s book and that it was set in Cleveland. Though she asked me not to read the Wharton first (she didn’t want her writing to pale in comparison), I figured that I wouldn’t really understand her version if I didn’t know the original. Though I don’t usually do so (and I wish I hadn’t here), I read the introduction to Wharton’s New York novels provided by Jonathan Franzen. He makes the argument that Wharton’s protagonist, Lily, is inherently unsympathetic and that Wharton’s genius rests in her ability to make us empathize with her anyway. Perhaps clouded by that claim (I am no fan of Franzen’s non-fiction, and if his next novel is not better than Freedom, he may be off my list entirely), I was determined to like Lily, and I did. She is, in my mind, stuck. Of limited means but with unlimited ambition, she is determined to make her way in society in any way that she can. Though a prospective suitor lurks on the edge of the plot, Lily resists and tries her best to make her way up the highly symbolic staircases of her world, a way that is limited both by her finances and her gender. Reminiscent of Dreiser, Cather et all, all does not go so well, and I could not find my way to blaming Lily for it.
I think I will skip The Custom of the Country, but do have plans to try The Age of Innocence one day.
After I finished this novel, a question lingered, one that ask myself after other literature, plays, etc. (think Noel Coward) – does this still matter?
I’m not sure.
Though I enjoyed the book