Monday, June 30, 2008

The Glimpses of the Moon

Edith Wharton's novel The Glimpses of the Moon was an immensely satisfying read; it's a good story that moves along at just the right pace, and it offers much to think about: it deals with love and marriage, money and society, ambition, work, children, novel-writing, travel, class, isolation, loneliness, and probably more things that I'm not thinking about now. I don't think the book is quite on par with The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, maybe because it is more narrow in focus than the other two and perhaps because I'm biased towards books with a tragic rather than a comic structure. But still, I felt a depth and heft to this book that I too often feel is missing in more contemporary fiction.

The novel tells the story of Susy Branch and Nick Lansing, both of whom have no money but have found ways of living comfortably in high society -- they have been sponging off of friends in order to support the lifestyles to which they have been accustomed. When they meet and hit it off, they decide to marry and live as long as they can off the wedding presents they receive and the offers of houses to visit that come from their rich friends. The novel opens with the couple beginning their honeymoon at a friend's villa on Lake Como. The catch, though, is that they have agreed to end the marriage if one or the other finds someone rich who will marry them. Their marriage is opportunistic through and through, although they are, without a doubt, quite fond of each other.

With this precarious situation at the novel's opening, things are bound to unravel, and unravel they do. First of all, Nick and Susy discover that their intense focus on money is bound to warp their relationship. It turns out they have different ideas about what manipulation and deception, what "management" -- an important term in the novel -- is acceptable when it comes to securing money or a house to live in. They quarrel about whether Susy should take a box of cigars left by their friend, and this quarrel causes a rift that won't soon heal and that hints at the even greater struggles the two of them will soon face.

This conflict is interesting because of the way it's gendered; as a woman Susy is more vulnerable than Nick is and therefore needs a moral code that is more flexible to maintain her position. Nick has the luxury of being a little more discriminating. Wharton describes this conflict in satisfying detail, especially the way Susy regrets that she has disappointed Nick and longs to attain a higher moral standard, but at the same time fully understands the reasons for her behavior and is able to forgive herself.

From here things fall apart further; friends and their friends' children intrude into their honeymoon bliss, jealousies flare, misunderstandings arise. Nick and Susy have much to learn, both about themselves and about the world they live in. They eventually are faced with the demoralizing realization that the world they worked so hard to maintain their place in is ultimately frivolous and shallow. Their friends lead silly, pointless lives and are intensely selfish. They only care about Nick and Susy to the extent that they have something to gain from them.

In contrast to their wealthy but frivolous friends are the Fulmers, a family of struggling artists and many children who lead honest lives but have no money. Susy and Nick are horrified by these people, by their obliviousness to fashion and their unsophisticated happiness. But they are innocent and relatively unspoiled by the idleness and silliness of the other characters (at least at first). Eventually Susy and Nick will learn something from these people; their changing attitude towards the Fulmers will mark changes within themselves.

The novel's structure is satisfying too (although perhaps a trifle too neat? I enjoy this kind of neatness though). I'm going to be discussing plot events from later in the novel, so take care -- after Nick and Susy split they each find another love interest and another family to take care of them, and each of them have lessons to learn about themselves and about each other. Only after they have learned these lessons apart from one another are they able to find a way to come together again. I found the ending plot twists exciting, although a tad unrealistic, but I was willing to get over this for the sake of the pleasure the ending brought.

4 comments:

stefanie said...

Well said! I enjoyed the book quite a lot too but did find things a trifle too neat and tidy at times as well, especially the ending. Even though we knew from the start they'd end up together again by the end, I still couldn't help but worry a tad that Wharton might toss in a tragic end after all.

Iliana said...

I thought for sure I'd be reaching for the kleenex by the end of the novel. What little I know of Wharton's works made me think I was in for a depressing story. So yep, I found those plot twists at the end quite exciting!

Dorothy W. said...

Stefanie -- I thought this book might have been an early novel, as it had that feeling -- some great ideas but without the depth of the other ones, so I was surprised to find it wasn't particularly early at all.

Iliana -- if you do read other Wharton novels, make sure to have that kleenex handy! This one was a nice change.

Katy said...

I just found this post as I'm having trouble sleeping, so I apologize that it's over a year after the rest of your posts. Although I don't know that you'll ever read this, I must say that I find Wharton's "tidy ending" incredibly satisfying. This could, in part, be because I consider myself a Victorianist and, thus, am nearly bound to an adoration for tidy endings. Moreso, however, I simply find it nice to see Wharton offer a happy ending to a novel; while I still have many to read, I am fairly well-versed in Wharton's incredible collection of works and this is the first of my reads that actually has a "happy" ending. While The Age of Innocence offers a very satisfactory ending and The House of Mirth made me love the characters but want to throw the book at the wall, it's nice to see that Wharton had a sense outside of her tumultuous life that people could, potentially, end up happy.