GAN Quest: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Walking the high wire…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the house of mirth 2Beautiful Lily Bart, trained from birth to take her place in the highest echelons of New York society of the late 19th century, lacks the money to maintain her position in this elite and snobbish group, so must marry well. At the age of twenty-nine her options are beginning to narrow, so she must do it soon before her beauty begins to fade. But Lily has a problem – she is unable to bring herself to marry purely for money and has met only one man who inspires passion – a man who doesn’t possess either the wealth or the desire to live the kind of life Lily must have. This is the story of Lily’s gradual descent through the social classes as a series of bad decisions causes her to lose the one thing more important to this shallow society than beauty – her reputation. Along the way, she will gain some self-knowledge and learn to value her self-respect more than her status. Well, almost…

Original illustrations by AB Wenzell
Original illustrations by AB Wenzell

If only I could have loved Lily! If I could at any point have felt that she were worthy of a week of my life, or a moment of Selden’s (an adulterer, so not a particularly high standard to reach)! It is undoubtedly true that books affect us differently depending on when we read them, and I suspect that had I read this when I was eighteen, it would have delighted me nearly as much as Ms Austen’s books did at that age and, like them, would probably then have remained a favourite. In fact, for a large part of the beginning, I found myself comparing Lily to Austen’s equally unlikeable heroine, Emma. But even in Emma, Austen tempers her view of a society that restricts women to the unpleasantnesses of the marriage mart by having a little humour and some fundamentally decent characters. In The House of Mirth, Wharton invites us to sneer at the characters rather than laugh with or even at them, and the most decent man is an adulterer who then snubs Lily for doing considerably less than he did. Accurate, of course, as a representation of the inequality of women, but hardly likely to make the reader warm towards him. Not this reader, at any rate.

the house of mirth original illustration 3

The book gives a cuttingly brilliant portrayal of this society and of the basic amorality at the heart of it. Money clears the path to good reputation – one can be forgiven anything if one is rich enough. But commit the crime of poverty and one is left balancing precariously on a high wire, without a safety net. And Lily doesn’t have the self-control to stop herself from swaying with each wind that blows. Her fall is described with what feels like great authenticity. She doesn’t plummet to her doom – rather she lands high up on a hill and then slips gradually down. This lets Wharton show the various strata of society, from the established and well-born, through the nouveau riche, to the rich but not quite respectable, and finally to the dinginess of genteel poverty that Lily has been brought up most to fear. Lily has opportunities to break her fall but each time, as she reaches the crunch, her pride won’t let her make the sacrifice that would be necessary.

Gillian Anderson and Etic Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?
Gillian Anderson and Eric Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?

The writing is, of course, excellent, as is Wharton’s insight into the workings of this society and the characters who inhabit it. But I found it a cold novel, without the contrasts that might have lent it some much needed warmth. I liked no-one, and actually I suspect that was Wharton’s intention. Being shallow, however, I need someone to care about to make a novel really work for me – and I couldn’t care about Lily, however hard I tried. Oh yes, by the end I felt sorry for her but, truthfully, not terribly. Her ambitions are so petty, her hardships so cushioned, her decisions so egotistical. She represents everything that is worst about a society where worth is measured by wealth, and just as I wouldn’t regret the passing of that kind of society, I couldn’t get worked up about this one unimportant little hanger-on. Get a job, was my constant cry! But no, Lily couldn’t even manage that. Become a companion to a rich old lady, then, I shrieked at her! No, no, she replied, I must attend parties and look more beautiful than everyone else or my life is not worth living. I felt forced to agree with the latter part of that sentence. And thus, when we wound slowly, slowly, slowly to the inevitable end, I regret to say I… giggled. I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to, honestly! I really hoped I’d sob!

the house of mirth original illustration 2

I don’t at all think my reaction means that the book fails, however. Apart from a rather sickly sweet finale (hence the giggling), I suspect my reaction was very much what Wharton intended to inspire. Certainly she wasn’t holding these people up for admiration and, as a social critique, I feel the book works wonderfully well. (I felt at points, though, that Wharton was far from immune from the attitudes and snobberies she was criticising – her depiction of the Jewish Rosedale, for example, and her stereotyping of the ‘poor’.) In the end, the lack of any characters that I could fully sympathise with (poor Gerty, too pathetically good to be true, I fear), meant that, like Emma, my admiration for the book never quite grew into love.

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Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagWithout doubt, it gives a brilliant depiction of the various levels of rich society of the time and of the hypocrisy at the heart of it.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, I’d say the perspective of a woman falling through the various levels is an innovative way to examine the workings of this society.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – I found the writing curiously cold, but nonetheless penetrating and excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.


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So not The Great American Novel, and with only four stars and four GAN flags, not even A Great American Novel, I fear. But it’s still a good and important novel that I’m glad to have read. The only thing holding it back from being a great novel for me is that I couldn’t learn to love Lily…

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TBR Thursday 64…

Episode 64


It was all going so well! I had got the TBR down to 149 when suddenly NetGalley had one of those days where umpteen irresistible books all appear at once… 152 again 153 now! My resolution this year is to get down to 70 by the end of the year – it’s not really looking very hopeful, is it? If only they came chocolate-coated, I could eat them…

Here are a few I should be getting to soon…



the house of mirth 2Having been diverted by all the Scottish fiction I decided to read over the summer, the GAN Quest has taken a back seat, but time to make a start. One that should be easily digestible to begin with…

The Blurb says First published in 1905, The House of Mirth shocked the New York society it so deftly chronicles, portraying the moral, social, and economic restraints on a woman who dared to claim the privileges of marriage without assuming the responsibilities. Lily Bart, beautiful, witty, and sophisticated, is accepted by “old money” and courted by the growing tribe of nouveaux riches. But as she nears 30, her foothold becomes precarious; a poor girl with expensive tastes, she needs a husband to preserve her social standing and to maintain her life in the luxury she has come to expect. While many have sought her, something—fastidiousness or integrity—prevents her from making a “suitable” match.

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sleeping on jupiterCourtesy of NetGalley. Longlisted, but not shortlisted, for this year’s Booker, this was one of the few that I could even bring myself to consider reading from a list that is both preponderantly American and heavily misery-laden. Oh, Booker, how art the mighty fallen! Must say I think this might be pretty misery-laden too… great cover though!

The Blurb says A train stops at a railway station. A young woman jumps off. She has wild hair, sloppy clothes, a distracted air. She looks Indian, yet she is somehow not. The sudden violence of what happens next leaves the other passengers gasping.The train terminates at Jarmuli, a temple town by the sea. Here, among pilgrims, priests and ashrams, three old women disembark only to encounter the girl once again. What is someone like her doing in this remote corner, which attracts only worshippers? Over the next five days, the old women live out their long-planned dream of a holiday together; their temple guide finds ecstasy in forbidden love; and the girl is joined by a photographer battling his own demons. The fullforce of the evil and violence beneath the serene surface of the town becomes evident when their lives overlap and collide. Unexpected connections are revealed between devotion and violence, friendship and fear as Jarmuli is revealed as a place with a long, dark past that transforms all who encounter it. This is a stark and unflinching novel by a spellbinding storyteller, about religion, love, and violence in the modern world.

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close your eyesNetGalley again. The latest in Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series – I’m reading these all out of order, but fortunately each works pretty well as a standalone too.

The Blurb says A mother and her teenage daughter are found brutally murdered in a remote farmhouse, one defiled by multiple stab wounds and the other left lying like Sleeping Beauty waiting for her Prince. Reluctantly, clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is drawn into the investigation when a former student, calling himself the ‘Mindhunter’, trading on Joe’s name, has jeopardised the police inquiry by leaking details to the media and stirring up public anger. With no shortage of suspects and tempers beginning to fray, Joe discover links between these murders to a series of brutal attacks where the men and women are choked unconscious and the letter ‘A’ is carved into their foreheads.

As the case becomes ever more complex, nothing is quite what it seems and soon Joe’s fate, and that of those closest to him, become intertwined with a merciless, unpredictable killer . . .

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the invisible man from salemI won this one in a competition! Via the excellent Raven’s blog. The question was ‘what would you do if you were invisible for a day’ and my reply was that I would stalk Rafa. Clearly the judge’s moral compass is as shaky as my own… the book looks good though!

The Blurb saysIn the final days of summer, a young woman is shot dead in her apartment. Three floors above, the blue lights of the police cars awaken disgraced ex-officer Leo Junker. Though suspended from the force, he can’t stay away for long. Bluffing his way onto the crime scene, he examines the dead woman and sees that she is clasping a cheap necklace — a necklace he instantly recognises. As Leo sets out on a rogue investigation to catch the killer, a series of frightening connections emerge, linking the murder to his own troubled youth in Salem — a suburb of Stockholm where social and racial tensions run high — and forcing him to confront a long ago incident that changed his life forever.

Now, in backstreets, shadowed alleyways, and decaying suburbs ruled by Stockholm’s criminal underground, the search for the young woman’s killer — and the truth about Leo’s past — begins.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Great American Novel Quest – The Second Batch

The Quest continues…


Great American Novel Quest

The first batch of ten contenders produced some fantastic reads, but so they should have since they were carefully chosen as some of the traditional front-runners in the race to be The Great American Novel. However, the list was also heavily weighted towards Dead White Men, with the addition of the occasional living one. All white and only one woman. This time round I’ve selected a rather more diverse group – 6 from the pens of female writers, three of whom are black, and a couple of recent books that haven’t been around long enough for us to know what their eventual status will be.

peanuts writing 4

There has been much interesting and thought-provoking chit-chat amongst my fellow readers as to the near impossibility of a book achieving that pesky fifth criteria which it needs to be declared The GAN…

For the elusive fifth flag, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole.

…though I would (and did) argue that American Pastoral does. I’ve found coming up with a revised fifth criterion that’s better than this one to be impossible also – to skew it so that favourite books can get in would certainly increase the number but would kind of take away the point, which is surely that The Great American Novel is one of the rarest of beasts, perhaps mythical. And entirely subjective.

peanuts writing 2

But, to be honest, the quest is more about finding Great American Novels in general than identifying one ‘winner’, so I’m quite content that several in this second batch are unlikely to be The GAN. I’m hopeful that some will be GANs and that more will be great novels. And if one of them happens to gain the elusive fifth flag, then that will be an added bonus.

peanuts writing 3

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So… a drum roll, maestro, please… for…

The Second Batch

Beloved by Toni MorrisonStaring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale HurstonWhen Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds …”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiea story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home. Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.


Moby Dick by Herman Melville In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America.

Absalom! Absalom! by William FaulknerThe story of Thomas Sutpen, an enigmatic stranger who came to Jefferson in the early 1830s to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said, ‘who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him.'”

Gone with the Wind by Margaret MitchellMany novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone With the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives.”

The House of Mirth by Edith WhartonThe tragic love story reveals the destructive effects of wealth and social hypocrisy on Lily Bart, a ravishing beauty. More a tale of social exclusion than of failed love, The House of Mirth reveals Wharton’s compelling gifts as a storyteller and her clear-eyed observations of the savagery beneath the well-bred surface of high society.


Middlesex by Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Lolita by Vladimir NabokovHumbert Humbert – scholar, aesthete and romantic – has fallen completely and utterly in love with Lolita Haze, his landlady’s gum-snapping, silky skinned twelve-year-old daughter. Hilarious, flamboyant, heart-breaking and full of ingenious word play, Lolita is an immaculate, unforgettable masterpiece of obsession, delusion and lust.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher StoweStowe’s powerful abolitionist novel fueled the fire of the human rights debate in 1852. Denouncing the institution of slavery in dramatic terms, the incendiary novel quickly draws the reader into the world of slaves and their masters.”

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – (carried over from the first batch) an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).

(NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.)

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Many thanks to everyone who has joined in the discussions and/or suggested contenders. I have another 25 or so still to come after this, but am still looking for recommendations. I’d particularly like to add some more cultural diversity to the list (there are no black male authors on it, for example, and none from authors with Latin-American or, indeed, Native American heritage). Also, more women are needed to even things up a bit – there are very few female authors amongst the remaining 25, since I’ve included most of the ones on my list in this batch. And I’d love to mix some outstanding modern American fiction (1980 to 2010, say) in with the classics, whether they would be contenders for GAN status or not. For preference, though, they should shed some light on that great conundrum which is America.

peanuts writing 1

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So… what do you think of the list? Are there ones that you would endorse… or dump? Any recommendations?