Monday, June 30, 2008

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


Iliana said...

The same thing happened to me regarding Nick being upset at Susy. I knew she had done some things he didn't like but really I just couldn't wrap my mind around his whole attitude.

Rebecca H. said...

Nice review! I suppose the transformation Susy went through at the end where she learned to value the Fulmers by taking care of their children is a little unrealistic -- but still, it was sort of satisfying. I thought Nick and Susy, or at least Susy, did genuinely value them at the end and that was a sign of her growth.