Monday, June 30, 2008


My knowledge of Edith Wharton’s work has been, sadly, just limited to movie productions of her novels, but thanks to the Slaves of Golconda I finally read one of her novels. This month we are discussing The Glimpses of the Moon so if you’ve read it or just want to read more about it, please check out the blog posts at the Slaves blog or head over to the MetaxuCafe Forums.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. From what I’ve read online, Edith Wharton was known for combining her insider’s view of America’s privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit to write humorous and incisive novels and short stories (thanks to Wikipedia). I think that perfectly describes Glimpses of the Moon.

In Glimpses of the Moon Susy Branch and Nick Lansing make a pact to be able to take advantage of their friends’ generosity towards newlyweds. You see, both have friends and connections with the wealthy set but they themselves don’t have the funds to support the lifestyle they enjoy. So, they marry and receive generous wedding gifts in the forms of guest houses, dinners, trips and other privileges. Susy and Nick enjoy each others company and their friends seem so happy to help them out that it seems it is a just exchange.

It seems so good in fact, that Susy thinks they should extend their marriage even longer to keep enjoying the good life.

“But at the present moment her animosity was diminished not only by the softening effect of love but by the fact that she had got out of those very people more–yes, ever so much more–than she and Nick, in their hours of most reckless planning, had ever dared to hope for. “After all, we owe them this!” she mused. Her husband, lost in the drowsy beatitude of the hour, had not repeated his question; but she was still on the trail of the thought he had started. A year–yes, she was sure now that with a little management they could have a whole year of it! “It” was their marriage, their being together, and away from bores and bothers, in a comradeship of which both of them had long ago guessed the immediate pleasure, but she at least had never imagined the deeper harmony.”

Of course, the plan won’t be as easy as that and soon the two will be wondering what just happened to their relationship. Nick and Susy have different perspectives on what is right and wrong but they never seem to talk and so there are just many misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Will the two end up seeking a divorce? Will they resolve their differences or go their separate ways and will they forever be chasing after the good life? Well, you’ll have to read this slim novel to find out.

For me Susy was an especially interesting character. I think she was genuine and did the things she did not out of malice but because it just seemed like that was the way for her to survive. She’ll have learned a lot of lessons the hard way by the end of the novel. Nick, on the other hand, seems to think of himself as the one with a moral compass yet I don’t believe he was any better than Susy. As a matter of fact, I blamed him for a lot of Susy’s heartache.

This novel is a wonderful glimpse of life in a different era. I found it amazing really that Nick and Susy could pull off a year-long honeymoon thanks to their friends. And, overall it made me think of how people can muck up relationships all because there is a lack of communication.

A wonderful read and now I’m very excited because I still have so many Wharton books yet to discover.

Cross-posted at Bookgirl's Nightstand

Money Corrupts, Mostly

Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton is the first book she published after she became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. The book she won the Pulitzer for was Age of Innocence, a tough act to follow. Wharton nonetheless does a good job with Glimpses of the Moon, producing a novel that isn't quite spectacular but is nothing to be embarrassed by either.

The plot is simple. Susy, a girl of the monied class who has been left without family or money and has been living by sponging off her rich friends, proposes to Nick Lansing, archeologist and unsuccessful writer without much money but also with rich friends. Susy's proposition is for the two of them to marry and live for a year in various of their friend's houses with their wedding gift money to be used as pocket money. During this year they will each try to find a better situation for themselves and when they do they will amicably divorce and go their separate ways. Of course it doesn't work. Of course they fall in love. Of course something happens to separate them. Of course we are left wondering until the very end whether they will get back together again. But even with all those of courses the story is pleasantly told, I still found myself involved with the characters, and I was still worried that maybe the book wouldn't have a happy ending.

Wharton is known for her social satire and eye for wealthy society detail. She doesn't disappoint in this book. Though because of the different moral values between now and then, I initially had a little difficulty understanding the moral quandary that caused Nick and Susy to separate.

The biggest question that loomed for me in the book was the corrupting power of money. It is clear that the rich society set that Nick and Susy run with are petty and care only about what money can buy them including the power it gives them over friends with less money. They don't care about the art or the artist they might discover, only the fact that they discovered him and introduced him into society. Susy and Nick are different in that they do care. They want a more meaningful life without artifice but they aren't certain how to go about it.

Susy has spent her life "managing," doing favors for friends in return for being kept in their society. Most of the favors are unsavory--flirting with a husband so he doesn't notice his wife is having an affair with someone else for instance. Susy thinks that if she were rich she would have the luxury of being a moral person. But when she gets her chance, it is clear that things are not as simple as she had hoped they would be.

Contrasted to Susy is Coral Hicks, highly educated daughter of newly wealthy parents. Coral hates the frippery of high society but decides if she marries a prince she will be able to create the kind of society she wants. But even this is questionable as her parents started off the same way and lunged at the chance to move in even higher social circles.

And then there are the Fulmers, two artistic types with five children just making ends meet. They both are "discovered" and suddenly find themselves living in Europe being wined and dined and wooed. They still are not rich but they no longer have to worry so much about money. When Mr. Fulmer's art starts to suffer because of the socializing, Mrs. Fulmer chases off the rich women who want to take him on a tour of Italy and she and her husband go just the two of them on their own terms. The Fulmers prove that money doesn't have to corrupt, but they are an unusual case.

The Fulmers seem to be the couple Wharton holds up for Nick and Susy to aspire to be like. But Nick and Susy only feel pity for their friends for most of the book and want to do everything they can to avoid being like them. They see the Fulmers' lack of money as a hinderance to the finer things in life like staying at exquisite villas, drowning in jewels and buying the season's best chinchilla coat before your friend can. In the end, of course, the Fulmers prove that the finer things in life can't be bought.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

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.