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Highly acclaimed at its publication in 1913, The Custom of the Country is a cutting commentary on America’s nouveaux riches, their upward-yearning aspirations and their eventual downfalls. Through her heroine, the beautiful and ruthless Undine Spragg, a spoiled heiress who looks to her next materialistic triumph as her latest conquest throws himself at her feet, Edith Whar Highly acclaimed at its publication in 1913, The Custom of the Country is a cutting commentary on America’s nouveaux riches, their upward-yearning aspirations and their eventual downfalls. Through her heroine, the beautiful and ruthless Undine Spragg, a spoiled heiress who looks to her next materialistic triumph as her latest conquest throws himself at her feet, Edith Wharton presents a startling, satiric vision of social behavior in all its greedy glory. As Undine moves from America’s heartland to Manhattan, and then to Paris, Wharton’s critical eye leaves no social class unscathed. From the Trade Paperback edition.


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Highly acclaimed at its publication in 1913, The Custom of the Country is a cutting commentary on America’s nouveaux riches, their upward-yearning aspirations and their eventual downfalls. Through her heroine, the beautiful and ruthless Undine Spragg, a spoiled heiress who looks to her next materialistic triumph as her latest conquest throws himself at her feet, Edith Whar Highly acclaimed at its publication in 1913, The Custom of the Country is a cutting commentary on America’s nouveaux riches, their upward-yearning aspirations and their eventual downfalls. Through her heroine, the beautiful and ruthless Undine Spragg, a spoiled heiress who looks to her next materialistic triumph as her latest conquest throws himself at her feet, Edith Wharton presents a startling, satiric vision of social behavior in all its greedy glory. As Undine moves from America’s heartland to Manhattan, and then to Paris, Wharton’s critical eye leaves no social class unscathed. From the Trade Paperback edition.

30 review for The Custom of the Country (Bantam Classics)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Petra-X Off having adventures

    It was fashionable at one time to send rich American girls who had everything over to Europe in order to acquire a title from an impoverished aristocrat who was none too fussy about his bride so long as she came with a very generous papa. Some of them, like the extremely despicable Lady Rose Astor (view spoiler)[How else can one describe a racist, anti-semitic bff of Henry Ford and other Nazi sympathisers? (hide spoiler)] really became part of their adoptive country and others, like our heroine, It was fashionable at one time to send rich American girls who had everything over to Europe in order to acquire a title from an impoverished aristocrat who was none too fussy about his bride so long as she came with a very generous papa. Some of them, like the extremely despicable Lady Rose Astor (view spoiler)[How else can one describe a racist, anti-semitic bff of Henry Ford and other Nazi sympathisers? (hide spoiler)] really became part of their adoptive country and others, like our heroine, Undine Spragg didn't. Undine wasn't top-drawer wealthy to begin with, only middling, and she had a past, but that didn't stop her pursuit of wealth, haute couture, a sparkling social life and compliments. She came from Apex and you might think reached her apex on marrying a French Marquis and gaining a title and a historic palace, but no, he wasn't rich enough for her. And so displaying all the worst characteristics of an American (as described by the Marquis - shallow, no feeling for history or art, everything is valued according to its monetary worth and has to be new) she tries to sell, or persuade the Marquis to sell, tapestries given by Louis IVX to his family. In doing so she meets her first husband again, now a billionaire, and so a quickie divorce at midnight is arranged with a wedding minutes later, and she is happy as happy could be. All that money! Her husband, provider of this unlimited largesse, lives if not to regret it, at least to make the best of it, which is more than can be said for her second husband, father of her only child. He shot himself. The husband pals up to this child, whom Undine scarcely knows and cares even less about. The husband knows that if he had no money, he too would not bask in her affections but be subject to the same cold, brittle light Undine regards her son with and determines to do his best for the boy. It's quite a brilliant book, related closely to the French genre of beautiful women and the machinations they get up to in pursuit of wealth. But the French are moralistic and the woman always gets her comeuppance, whether it be the pox, age, or the mirror on the wall keeps telling her there are younger beauties that men will pay top dollar for, not old whores past their sell-by date. Edith Wharton being an American does not feel the need for this sort of ending. Her heroine, nasty as she is has achieved the American dream of social-climbing and wealth - anyone can get to the top. And there she leaves her narcissistic billionairess. Well-written, and very enjoyable. The only flaw for me was the headlong drive for money and social domination was not tempered by any softness or virtues in the heroine. She lacked humanity. You couldn't identify with her as you could with, say, Madame Bovary

  2. 5 out of 5

    Vessey

    SPOILERS Social gold does not always glitter Edith Wharton did not have a happy life. Nor do her characters. What is happiness anyway, if not merely a part of our lives, something we all pursue, but rarely, if ever, possess in a clean, full form? We are destined to fail. We are imperfect by design. And Undine Spragg is one of the most imperfect characters I have come across. Actually, imperfect is an understatement. She is a walking disaster. A woman almost completely devoid of empathy and self-re SPOILERS Social gold does not always glitter Edith Wharton did not have a happy life. Nor do her characters. What is happiness anyway, if not merely a part of our lives, something we all pursue, but rarely, if ever, possess in a clean, full form? We are destined to fail. We are imperfect by design. And Undine Spragg is one of the most imperfect characters I have come across. Actually, imperfect is an understatement. She is a walking disaster. A woman almost completely devoid of empathy and self-respect. She is forever entrapped in her search for greatness, but nothing she achieves is ever enough. As soon as I was finished, I told my friend Jeffrey: “What is the point of achieving what you dream of if you can never enjoy it, because you are always so consumed with what you don’t have, if the very reason for wanting what you do is that you don’t have it and once you have it, you find yourself bored and angry and it turns out that nothing has really changed? I think that the reason why the protagonist – I should say the antagonist, really - can never be happy with her achievements is her lack of desire to share them. And, of course, they lose their meaning. She merely wants to be admired and indulged and not bothered with anything, to not think and be responsible for anyone and anything. She has no sense of self. She wants to be treated like an object, like all she exists for is to be admired from afar, like she has no substance, in the same way a doll or a sculpture is admired, like she is empty. And this is why her life is empty too.” As my friend Sidharth says, life needs life to see itself. It was admiration, not love, that she wanted. She wanted to enjoy herself, and her conception of enjoyment was publicity, promiscuity – the band, the banners, the crowd, the close contact of covetous impulses, and the sense of walking among them in cool security..A stranger – that was what she had always been to him. So malleable outwardly, she had remained insensible to the touch of the heart. In her mind there is no place for considerations, scruples, limitations. It was impossible for Undine to understand a social organization which did not regard the indulging of woman as its first purpose She completely lacks depth. She combines passionate desires with passionless nature. A combination that leads to the downfall of everyone who loves her and her own personal hell. But is it merely her fault? The real paradox is the fact that the men who make, materially, the biggest sacrifices for their women, should do least for them ideally and romantically. And what’s the result – how do the women avenge themselves? All my sympathy’s with them, poor deluded dears, when I see their fallacious little attempts to trick out the leavings tossed them by the preoccupied male – the money and the motors and the clothes – and pretend to themselves and each other that that’s what really constitutes life! Oh, I know what you’re going to say – it’s less and less of a pretence with them, I grant you; they’re more and more succumbing to the force of the suggestion; but here and there I fancy there’s one who still sees through the humbug, and knows that money and motors and clothes are simply the big bribe she’s paid for keeping out of some man’s way!’ ‘And is Undine one of the exceptions?’ Her companion took the shot with a smile. ‘No – she’s a monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph. It’s Ralph who’s the victim and the exception. Unlike others, Undine doesn’t learn any lessons, doesn’t go through any profound changes. She keeps being a soulless, mindless force of nature, sucking the life out of everyone close to her. This book, just like The Age of Innocence, reveals the truth that often stays unsaid. That when women are belittled, men are no less harmed. Because each right entails with itself a responsibility and vice versa. When there is no equality, when there is no partnership, there are no winners. Only destruction. And by refusing to admit it, we become our worst enemies. Undine is a woman of her time. But is Ralph truly an exception? There is no doubt about how much he loves her and that he wants to give her much more than just material goods, that he wants her to be an essential part of his life. However, he misses to realize that indulging someone isn’t enough to create a real partnership. By tolerating and accepting everything she does – to him, to their child – he is no less of a supporter of the vicious circle. He completely loses his spirit. The flame of love that had played about his passion for his wife had died down to its embers; all the transfiguring hopes and illusions were gone, but they had left an unquenchable ache for her nearness, her smile, her touch. His life had come to be nothing but a long effort to win these mercies by one concession after another: the sacrifice of his literary projects, the exchange of his profession for an uncongenial business, and the incessant struggle to make enough money to satisfy her increasing exactions. That was where the ‘call’ had led him … He spends his whole life diminishing himself and exalting her. This adoring, gentle, maybe too good to be true husband feeds the abyss as much as every self-centered lover of boot-licking out there. Not having appreciation for yourself is as bad as not having it for the person next to you. The lack of sense of self is probably the only thing he truly shares with Undine. Even in the end, when he finally has a reaction, he takes down not her, but himself. He destroys himself and the future of his son. The distinction between winner and loser, abuser and victim, is not always quite clear. To me Ralph and Undine, albeit very different, are two sides of the same coin. Products of an ill system that either corrupts or crashes you. Unlike the ending of The Age of Innocence, the ending of The Custom of the Country doesn’t leave us with a glimmer of hope. It is perfect and eloquent in its bleakness. Edith Wharton strips the body of the late XIX century New York society of its brilliant clothing, separates the skin from the bones and turns the bones into dust. There is no happiness in this story, but there is truth. And, as imperfect as we are, it is up to us whether we shall let it be our truth or find that glimmer of hope, after all. My thanks to Candi for the recommendation! :)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    So I had totally committed my schedule to having lengthy tea with a brilliant Oxford professor of incredible intelligence, unsurpassed insight, and fabled dry wit. And while I know that my extended afternoon with Dr. George Eliot would have proven to be a fascinating and immensely edifying experience that I would've remembered for the rest of my life, I still did the bad thing and just blew her off. Yes, I ditched the eminent Dr. Eliot to drink ice cream sodas and read celebrity gossip magazines So I had totally committed my schedule to having lengthy tea with a brilliant Oxford professor of incredible intelligence, unsurpassed insight, and fabled dry wit. And while I know that my extended afternoon with Dr. George Eliot would have proven to be a fascinating and immensely edifying experience that I would've remembered for the rest of my life, I still did the bad thing and just blew her off. Yes, I ditched the eminent Dr. Eliot to drink ice cream sodas and read celebrity gossip magazines with a bubbly, divorced Gibson Girl who's gorgeous but dreadful, who's got all the new fashions and knows the most ruthless jokes. And who can really blame me for breaking my engagement? I'm an American! I can't help it! We just wanna have fun. We want things to be sexy and dazzling, and brand spanking NEW. And okay, this book's not new exactly (1913), but it sure reads that way. I can't improve on my mother's description of The Custom of the Country as "Henry James meets Candace Bushnell," except to recommend it also to fans of Gossip Girl and similar treats. Edith Wharton is truly a fabulous writer, and her style's as gorgeous as the gilded world of the rich she describes. The special thing about this particular book of hers is its repellent anti-heroine, the wonderfully named and well-initialed society beauty Undine Spragg. Undine Spragg makes Emma Bovary look like a sweet, sharp young lady who'd be good BFF material. Wharton's unsubtle point that society (Society?) creates monsters like Undine is not so heavy-handed that the pace or plot gets slowed down. While there are definitely some tragic, Whartonian events in here, the whole novel for me felt both like tragedy and comedy, and her unsympathetic heroine bit works so successfully that the novel profits hugely from that ambivalence. The book ends with a marriage, and is tragic in this weird and smart sense that the hero doesn't realize there has been any tragedy. It's a good good book, truly. I had a swell time. Can I just say now that I LOVE Edith Wharton? I LOVE Edith Wharton. I just think she's great. She sure could write, man. The Custom of the Country is very specifically about a historical moment and certain issues -- American identity, wealth, the Woman Question, etc. -- but it's in the Great Lit section because the things she's getting into still matter a lot. Undine's one of the most beautiful characters in literature, and it's no accident that she's got one of the most memorably lousy personalities. Wharton makes her very human, though, and weirdly sympathetic, while tying the tragedy that is Undine to ideas about the social role of women and the effects of that role on individuals. So The Custom of the Country is, in that way, a successful social novel, because Wharton gets her political concerns across through -- not in spite of -- the story's unfolding. But The Custom of the Country is, more than a great social novel, a great Society novel. "Society" being what Americans tried to put together before we got Hollywood, this is a sort of a proto-Valley of the Dolls celebrity cautionary tale, which is another gigantic point in its favor. I also got all riled up when Undine made it to Paris and started trying to get in with the Faubourg Saint Germain set, in the hopes that she'd bump into the main character from In Search of Lost Time. That unfortunately didn't happen, but it is fun to think about, in a really dumb, nerdy, middle-school English class assignment kind of way.... Edith Wharton's no Marcel Proust, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. She's no George Eliot either, so while Wharton may be considered somewhat less respectable in certain social circles, when I go out calling it's her drawing room I rush to first. It's the best decorated and most fun, and Dr. Eliot can wait, possibly forever.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    Edith Wharton has fixed Henry James, whose essential problem is that he's a pain in the ass. He's smart and all, if that's what you're into, but he's never been known to end a sentence and he has this perverse refusal to write the interesting parts of stories. It's weird, right? It's like if the Death Star blew up off screen and the movie ended with people discussing it. "That was crazy how that just blew right up, huh?" "Yeah, at first I thought we weren't going to win, but in the end we did!" Edith Wharton has fixed Henry James, whose essential problem is that he's a pain in the ass. He's smart and all, if that's what you're into, but he's never been known to end a sentence and he has this perverse refusal to write the interesting parts of stories. It's weird, right? It's like if the Death Star blew up off screen and the movie ended with people discussing it. "That was crazy how that just blew right up, huh?" "Yeah, at first I thought we weren't going to win, but in the end we did!" Edith Wharton is like Henry James with the interesting parts. Custom of the Country follows Wharton's best character, especially if you like terrible characters: Undine Spragg, the Edmund Hillary of social climbing. She arrives in New York from the allegorical Midwestern small town of Apex, with money on her mind. "To have things had always seemed to her the first essential of existence." She's out to use her beauty to become one of the beautiful people. She's a social genius: brilliant at reading people, seeing what they really want, adapting her behavior to them. But she's desperately shallow - "a mote in the beam of pleasure" - and that's her hamartia. (That's a fancy word I just learned; it means fatal flaw.) If what they want is to talk about art or literature, she's bright enough to know it but in no way interested in doing it. So she goes through social circles, partners, cities. "She was always doubling and twisting on herself." She marries (view spoiler)[the hidden sea cave Ralph Marvell, a sensitive artist type with social stature but no money. She dumps him for Peter Van Degen, who has the money but no intention of divorcing his wife; she rebounds with the French aristocrat Raymond de Chelles, who makes her a marquise but will not fund her partygoing. And she ends up with who she started with, the crude, ambitious, successful Elmer Moffat. Her big secret all along has been that she capriciously married him back in Apex, in sortof a Britney Spears-in-Vegas move. In a bizarrely touching way, Moffat has loved her all along; he's pulled strings, sometimes cruelly, to keep her afloat and within reach. You find yourself almost happy for her with this match; they're perfect for each other, both entirely untroubled by morals or empathy. But even at the end, with all the money and social standing she's ever wanted, she's already grasping for the next rung of the social ladder. "She could never be an Ambassador's wife," thanks to her divorces, and in the very last sentence of the book, "she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for." (hide spoiler)] "She had everything she wanted," Wharton tells us, "But she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them." Much of this is very funny, and much more of it is very sad. Undine (pronounced, probably, UNdeen) is yet another in the long, long line of literature's shitty mothers. (view spoiler)[She forgets poor Paul's birthday, leaving him sitting in his nursery waiting to be taken to his own party. (hide spoiler)] At one point she blackmails her husband with a threat to pretend to love her son. (view spoiler)[She demands $100,000 (to buy an annulment) or she'll take custody of him, despite having no interest whatsoever in him. The scheme drives Ralph Marvell to suicide. This plan was suggested by Elmer Moffat, in the most consequential example of his machinations. (hide spoiler)] She is truly a piece of shit person, which didn't at all stop me from rooting for her. Much of this book is about divorce, and what it means for a woman; and indeed Edith Wharton wrote it as she went through her own, devastating divorce. It was a painful one, from a philandering and profligate husband - and not the only time Wharton would swap the genders while telling a story - and she never recovered from it; her social standing was permanently damaged. Instead of remarrying, at age 50, she focused on writing novels. So we should thank her lame husband, because if he were any better, she might never have fixed Henry James. Here's what James's psychological acuity and insight into human motivation looks like when it's engaged by someone who knows how to finish a sentence, and how to write the exciting parts. Edith Wharton was deeply influenced by him - this book is a direct, if crooked, response to his aching Washington Square - but she's better than him. I love this judgment from Edmund White: "Even in the best of Wharton, I’d hazard, there is always something slightly trashy...as though Henry James and Wilkie Collins were always struggling over her soul." Yes, that's as good a way to say it as any. She ends up combining the best of both of them into something that's better than either. She is a marvel.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    This book is amazing. No one writes like this anymore -- in fact, after I finished this, I had a hard time getting into a more contemporary novel, because the newer book felt so spare and empty compared to Wharton's thoughtful and lovely prose. Certain paragraphs of Custom of the Country made me stop and just admire her craft; she conveys so much depth of thought in so few sentences, with precision and elegance that I've never encountered elsewhere and could never even begin to replicate. It ble This book is amazing. No one writes like this anymore -- in fact, after I finished this, I had a hard time getting into a more contemporary novel, because the newer book felt so spare and empty compared to Wharton's thoughtful and lovely prose. Certain paragraphs of Custom of the Country made me stop and just admire her craft; she conveys so much depth of thought in so few sentences, with precision and elegance that I've never encountered elsewhere and could never even begin to replicate. It blew me away. Aside from that, the story is great fun, with its spunky, bratty heroine on a tear through Europe collecting suitors and clothing, Katamari Damacy-style. You might hate her, but you have to admire her power. And you have to admire Wharton's almost eerily modern ideology.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Duane

    Someone once advised Edith Wharton, I think it was Henry James, to be successful in writing you should focus on subjects that you are familiar with and understand. For Wharton, that was New York, and the privileged upper crust society of which she was a part. Aside from Ethan Frome, her most beloved novels are three that captured the essence of this society and it's people, The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), and The Age of Innocence (1920). The Custom of the Country pr Someone once advised Edith Wharton, I think it was Henry James, to be successful in writing you should focus on subjects that you are familiar with and understand. For Wharton, that was New York, and the privileged upper crust society of which she was a part. Aside from Ethan Frome, her most beloved novels are three that captured the essence of this society and it's people, The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), and The Age of Innocence (1920). The Custom of the Country produced one of Wharton's most memorable characters, Miss Undine Spragg, who came to New York from a well to do, but not socially connected, family. She finally breaks into high society when she meets and eventually marries Ralph Marvell. He has the family connections but not the wealth she is hoping for, but she has stepped on that ladder of upward mobility and she takes advantage of every opportunity from that point to fulfill her dreams. If I counted right she is married four times and has at least one significant affair during the course of the novel. I don't think she was in love with anyone but herself. Yes, Undine was a vain and very shallow young woman. Wharton's ability to create interesting characters, captivating plots, and prose that is incredibly beautiful, makes anything she writes a pleasure to read. I don't know if this is her best novel, many critics think it is, but it is right up there, not only with her other works, but with anything from that period. And that period includes the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and her good friend Henry James.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Fionnuala

    Edith Wharton's gift was her twenty twenty vision of the society she lived in, New York at the beginning of the 20th century. The moral of this complicated but satisfying tale seems to be that without the well established customs to be found in old Europe, people in the new world are adrift and have nothing better to aspire to than wealth and celebrity status. The irony is that her conclusions could apply to the Europe of today. Edith Wharton's gift was her twenty twenty vision of the society she lived in, New York at the beginning of the 20th century. The moral of this complicated but satisfying tale seems to be that without the well established customs to be found in old Europe, people in the new world are adrift and have nothing better to aspire to than wealth and celebrity status. The irony is that her conclusions could apply to the Europe of today.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Martine

    Think Edith Wharton only wrote novels about nice people who fall victim to society's uncongenial mores? Then The Custom of the Country may come as a bit of a surprise to you. Far from a dignified, morally superior character, the book's heroine, the beautiful but vulgar Undine Spragg, is a selfish monster who takes society (or rather, several different societies) head on, suffers a bit for her lack of subtlety but comes out filthy rich. Unless you're a gold-digger yourself, you'll find Undine har Think Edith Wharton only wrote novels about nice people who fall victim to society's uncongenial mores? Then The Custom of the Country may come as a bit of a surprise to you. Far from a dignified, morally superior character, the book's heroine, the beautiful but vulgar Undine Spragg, is a selfish monster who takes society (or rather, several different societies) head on, suffers a bit for her lack of subtlety but comes out filthy rich. Unless you're a gold-digger yourself, you'll find Undine hard to identify with, but that doesn't really matter, because for one thing, the story is far too interesting to care about a trifle like an unlikeable heroine, and for another, there are other characters to sympathise with. Such as Undine's poor, long-suffering husbands, to whom Wharton devotes a few beautiful, desperate chapters. Undine Spragg is a marvellous creation whose sense of entitlement and ruthlessness defy belief. She is as hypocritical as the 'friends' with whom she surrounds herself, disapproving of them for doing the same things she herself does without seeming to be aware of the irony. As a reader, you keep waiting for Undine to learn a lesson, but other than a dim awareness that others seem to find her rather dull once they have got over her physical beauty, she never learns a thing, let alone the harsh lesson she so deserves. She just goes on and on pressing for the things she wants, and for some reason she gets them. Most of them, anyway. As always, Wharton's prose is beautiful, her satire thick and marvellous. With great authority she lashes out at the different circles in which Undine moves, all of which Wharton knew from experience: Midwestern wannabes, representatives of venerable Old New York (dignified but ineffective), the Gilded Age nouveaux riches (vulgar, very vulgar, but not entirely without redeeming qualities) and the French aristocracy (dignified but hypocritical). What with Undine being so successful, The Custom of the Country lacks some of the tragic quality that makes The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence so memorable, but other than that, it's a fine exploration of upward mobility and aspirations, written by an author whose prose never fails to delight.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Perry

    " On her side " Come Again? Pardon? Huh? March 8, 2017 Open Letter to Baron Fellowes of West Stafford (Lord Julian Fellowes): After reading the novel The Custom of the Country , I read that you attribute to this novel your success with, among other endeavors, the popular series Downton Abbey, and the part of your speech accepting the 2012 Edith Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award when you said: "It is quite true that I felt this was my book; that the novel was talking to me in a most extreme an " On her side " Come Again? Pardon? Huh? March 8, 2017 Open Letter to Baron Fellowes of West Stafford (Lord Julian Fellowes): After reading the novel The Custom of the Country , I read that you attribute to this novel your success with, among other endeavors, the popular series Downton Abbey, and the part of your speech accepting the 2012 Edith Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award when you said: "It is quite true that I felt this was my book; that the novel was talking to me in a most extreme and immediate way. I think it's a remarkable piece of writing. In Undine Spragg, Wharton has created an anti-heroine absolutely in the same rank as Becky Sharp, Scarlett O'Hara, or Lizzie Eustace. Undine has no values except ambition, greed and desire, and yet through the miracle of Wharton's writing, you are on her side. That's what's so extraordinary about the book...I decided, largely because of her work, that it was time I wrote something." I agree, in a general way, with everything you state about this novel up until the part about being "on [Undine Spragg's] side." I find the thought that anyone could pull for Undine Spragg quite perplexing and almost troubling. Perhaps I might attribute our difference in opinion to class distinctions: me an attorney who grew up middle class in the American Deep South and you a loaded, landed Baron/author/screenwriter reared in South Kensington and Chiddingly, East Sussex. I do not think though, that this can be pegged simply to the fact that you are English and I am American. At least I hope that is not the case because I do sincerely believe that I am on the side of the angels here. I enjoyed this fine novel as a satire of the upper class society in New York City at the start of the 20th Century. I take heart from the fact that no one in the novel pulls for or is on Undine's side except Undine. Her father cannot even stand her. I cannot think of or imagine a female anti-heroine who is or could be more despicable, callow, vacuous, callous, nauseating, cold, loveless, loathsome, self-centered and inhumane as Undine Spragg. She was spoiled by her parents, threw fits when her father hesitated to bankrupt himself to buy her the next new thing to fit into NYC's upper crust, she married in hopes of money, then, when it was never enough, she abandoned husband and child and prostituted herself for jewelry, long stays in Paris, et cetera, then failed to come home from her vixen adventure to attend to her son or husband when the husband had pneumonia, did not bat an eye upon her husband's awful death, and committed many other moral misdeeds. In short, I could not find one redeeming quality in this b*tch. I wanted her to fall and miserably so in some tangible or measurable way; certainly, she failed in about every part of the moral human character and condition. By posting this online, I am inviting anyone (of any class, gender, age, and from anywhere) who has read this novel to enlighten me on what I am missing that put Baron Fellowes of West Stafford "on [Undine Spragg's] side." My Lord, hath our moral decadence come to this? Most Respectfully Yours, /s/ Attorney Addled, At A Loss in Alabama

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    My new favorite writer is Edith Wharton. I have read four of her wonderful novels this year and I intend to read all of the others in time. She is one of the sharpest observers of mankind that I have ever come across. You could believe that she sat and studied the people around her and then drew them in flesh and blood (that often ran red) on the sheets of paper in front of her. They are real, they breathe, and they make me wish to cry with them, comfort them or slap them with a fervor that is g My new favorite writer is Edith Wharton. I have read four of her wonderful novels this year and I intend to read all of the others in time. She is one of the sharpest observers of mankind that I have ever come across. You could believe that she sat and studied the people around her and then drew them in flesh and blood (that often ran red) on the sheets of paper in front of her. They are real, they breathe, and they make me wish to cry with them, comfort them or slap them with a fervor that is generally reserved for non-fictional human beings. Undine Spragg is one of the most complex characters ever drawn. Much of what she is can be easily understood by viewing her background and seeing her struggle to haul herself up from the acceptable but somewhat meager beginnings in Apex, NC to the elevated status of a New York society maven. She seems to have no scruples about how she elevates herself, however, and she can recognize none of the greater qualities in people. (view spoiler)[When she has driven her loving and devoted husband to the point of suicide, her reaction is one of wondering why she is always required to pay such a heavy price to obtain those things that are rightfully coming to her (in this case his money). She has so little regard for her child that she is willing to use him as a pawn in a game of ransom, and she will marry or exploit anyone she thinks will push her up the ladder of society. What is sadder still is that she has no recognition of what true genteel society is. She marries into that with Ralph and despises it. Her true match is the conniving, exploitive, and unrefined Moffat, who is also just a social climber. They have one thing in common, all their values are defined by money and position. (hide spoiler)] Watching Undine claw her way to the top is like watching an automobile accident in the making. You can scream at her to apply the brakes, but she has got too much momentum to ever stop the vehicle. To carry the analogy a step further, if she survives the accident, she will only think she is safer in a bigger, heavier car. She will not really learn to drive any better. Her selfishness is unbelievable (and yet, sorry to say, I have seen women just like her in my own lifetime...want, want, want and never any satisfaction. (view spoiler)[ In fact, even when she has Moffatt in the end and all the money she could ever wish, her poor French husband’s family heirloom tapestries hanging on her wall, and the power to manipulate most of society into admitting her because of her money, she is dissatisfied. Wharton’s last poke at Undine is “Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them. And there had been moments lately when she had had to confess to herself that Moffatt did not fit into the picture. At first she had been dazzled by his success and subdued by his authority. He had given her all she had ever wished for,and more than she had ever dreamed of having: he had made up to her for all her failures and blunders, and there were hours when she still felt his dominion and exulted in it. But there were others when she saw his defects and was irritated by them: when his loudness and redness, his misplaced joviality, his familiarity with the servants, his alternating swagger and ceremony with her friends, jarred on perceptions that had developed in her unawares. Now and then she caught herself thinking that his two predecessors--who were gradually becoming merged in her memory--would have said this or that differently, behaved otherwise in such and such a case. And the comparison was almost always to Moffatt's disadvantage.” She will never be happy or satisfied and she will always make others suffer for her desires and shortcomings. Moffatt will be the next to be made miserable in trying to satisfy Undine, but at least Moffatt will be someone who will be armed against her, as he is her kind and her equal. (hide spoiler)] While it is tempting to concentrate on Undine, since she is the character that moves all the action forward, one should not forget how beautifully Wharton draws all the other characters in this tale. Ralph Marvell is a stupendous character. He is an iconic picture of the old guard that is being squashed in favor of the nouveau riche. (I thought of Ashley Wilkes in GWTW, a man who has outlived the lifestyle he was intended for) All the qualities that make him exceptional are also the things that now hold him down in the society he inhabits. He has his name and little else and we can clearly see the Dogenets are a family falling from power. Peter Van Degen is a great example of someone who is from the old-school families but is learning to navigate perfectly in the new, less moral world of Wall Street investors, and Undine’s father is someone who seeks to become part of a world that does not improve his lot or make him happier. He was a big fish in a small pond in Apex, in New York he barely knows how to fit into the society he seeks. It is easy to see that if not of Undine, he would have been happily prospering in Apex. Every lesser character, from little Paul Marvell to Ralph’s cousin and sister, are drawn with precision and depth and seem real and essential to the understanding of this world. I could not be more pleased to have added this wonderful book to my growing list of Wharton missives. She is a masterful, insightful, splendid writer; a professional in the art of character study; and an expert in the art of flowing, expressive prose. If you have not come to her yet, you are missing one of the great writers of the early twentieth century.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Anna Luce

    ★★★★✰ 4 stars Step aside, Becky Sharp. Move over, Scarlett O'Hara...make way for Undine Spragg, the most unscrupulous anti-heroine I have ever encountered. “[S]he could not conceive that any one could tire of her of whom she had not first tired.” Wharton once again focuses her narrative on a young woman’s unrelenting attempts at social climbing. While Wharton does inject her depiction of Undine Spragg's ‘trials’ with a dose of satire she nevertheless is able to carry out an incisive commentar ★★★★✰ 4 stars Step aside, Becky Sharp. Move over, Scarlett O'Hara...make way for Undine Spragg, the most unscrupulous anti-heroine I have ever encountered. “[S]he could not conceive that any one could tire of her of whom she had not first tired.” Wharton once again focuses her narrative on a young woman’s unrelenting attempts at social climbing. While Wharton does inject her depiction of Undine Spragg's ‘trials’ with a dose of satire she nevertheless is able to carry out an incisive commentary regarding New York’s ‘high society’. Through her piercing insights into privilege Wharton is able to render a detailed and engaging examination of the intricate customs that prevailed among America’s ‘elite’ society, exemplifying the discordance between their values and their behaviour. Wharton emphasises their sense of entitlement and their idleness. While they often believe themselves to possess the most impeccable manners, readers know just how cut-throat they truly are. Armed with gossip or ready to form conniving schemes, most of them will hesitate at nothing in order to augment their wealth and reputation (ideally ruining someone's life in the process). Marriages are business manoeuvres and one makes friends on the basis of whether they might be later on be put to good use (‘networking’ is everything for these people). By bringing together these different themes and subjects—marriage, divorce, class, wealth—Wharton is able to present her readers with a nuanced and in-depth examination of New York's upper crust. As a character in the novel observes, Undine Spragg is the “monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph”. Undine, who was raised by two loving parents who spoiled her from a young age, possesses a solipsistic worldview and her values are exceedingly materialistic. Undine is an appalling protagonist. She is Lily Bart's monstrous little sister. We first ‘meet’ Undine when she still seems to be a simple, if pampered, ‘country’ girl. Soon however we begin to see that in spite of her simplicity (she definitely lacks Miss Bart's charisma and acumen) Undine Spragg is entirely egocentric and lacks both self-awareness and empathy. “It never occurred to her that other people's lives went on when they were out of her range of vision.” As noted by the narrative and the various characters, Undine's conceitedness, as well as her perpetual sense of boredom, may be the likely result of her upbringing. Her parents' leniency definitely played its role in making Undine feel as if she should only be concerned with her own happiness, and to be truly happy she has to marry well. Undine believes that as long as can enjoy an extravagant lifestyle and be favoured within certain circles, she won't be bored. As much as I loathed Undine—for her selfishness, her lack of creativity, and for her frivolous tastes—I was always aware that she did grow up in a society that values appearances. Undine was never made to feel as if she needed to cultivate any real interest. Her main concern are her own beauty and reputation, the two means through which she will be able to find a satisfactory match. It shouldn't be surprising then that Undine becomes a woman who is thoroughly disinterested in the lives of others. She sees no reason why she should be preoccupied with her husband's ‘menial’ work. She is unable to see why she should be held accountable for other people's misery. There was something oddly compelling about Undine's determination not to allow her desires to be comprised by anyone or anything. She is more than willing to have affairs, lie, drive her husband(s) and family into debt, and blackmail and manipulate others. While the narrative definitely accentuates Undine’s cherubic appearance (from her creamy complexion to her beautiful golden locks) readers are made aware of what lies beneath her rosy surface: Undine's vision of happiness is rather limited. She lacks imagination, so much so that she often merely tries to emulate the women around her. “Her entrances were always triumphs; but they had no sequel.” And while I certainly thought her to be a horrible person (her behaviour is reprehensible) there was a part of me that found her egocentrism and cruelty to be strangely compelling. Whether she is merely a product of environment or innately selfish, her total self-absorption was transfixing. Wharton portrays a scathing picture of her society: were “the average American looks down on his wife”, were women's sense of self is dictated by a cult of aspiration, were marriages are entirely transactional, and were young individuals are trapped by old traditions and customs. In spite of Undine's many romances, there is little if any love to be found within the pages of The Custom of the Country. And maybe that's for the best given that Undine is no heroine. While I certainly didn't find this novel to be as moving as Wharton's The Age of Innocence, and Undine's misadventures lack the poignancy of Lily's ones in The House of Mirth, I would still recommend this. Wharton's percipient prose, her sophisticated use of satire, vividly renders the customs and values of New York's high class. Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

  12. 5 out of 5

    Hana

    Alas, Undine! What a fatal, restless passion you have--not for men themselves--but for their admiration, and for the money and possessions they might bring you. You do so love your ropes of pearls! And how utterly miserable you make yourself and everyone around you. Can anyone in this glittering world ever satisfy your insatiable lust for more and still more things? Will you settle for a fine apartment, perhaps on Fifth Avenue--surely the West Side is not enough? Or perhaps you'd fancy a grand H Alas, Undine! What a fatal, restless passion you have--not for men themselves--but for their admiration, and for the money and possessions they might bring you. You do so love your ropes of pearls! And how utterly miserable you make yourself and everyone around you. Can anyone in this glittering world ever satisfy your insatiable lust for more and still more things? Will you settle for a fine apartment, perhaps on Fifth Avenue--surely the West Side is not enough? Or perhaps you'd fancy a grand Hôtel in France and a Château in the countryside? But no, the tapestries are so dusty and it's all such a bore! And who is the man who can satisfy you? The sensitive Ralph Marvell from a patrician New York family? Or the handsome, determined French aristocrat, Raymond De Chelles? But then...there is the crude new American, Elmer Moffatt, a financier and social climber every bit as ruthless as Undine herself... The Custom of the Country is an irresistible mix of grand soap opera and social satire simply packed with unforgettable characters, locations, and glorious descriptions. Home furnishings, architecture, dress silks or feathered hats--every detail is caressed with an acquisitive eye. As Undine climbs ever higher I delighted in Glided Age Washington Square with it's old-money families... Elegant, intimate salons filled with fine paintings, china vases and delicate gilded chairs... The fading grandeur of Old Europe is keenly drawn, as is the invasion of New Money Americans eager to appropriate the 'finer things' without really understanding them. I flew through The Custom of the Country in two sittings and I can't wait to read more Edith Wharton. P.S. The portraits are all by John Singer Sargent, reputedly the inspiration for Claud Walsingham Popple, who paints a portrait of Undine.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Faith

    Edith Wharton understood a certain type of woman as well or better than anyone who ever wrote a book. Undine was narcissistic, beautiful, manipulative, clever (but not overly intelligent or curious), and, above all, ambitious. She was more ruthless and eviscerating than a mafia don. Eventually, one of her captivated followers might notice her complete lack of concern for anyone but herself and her lack of interest in anything other than shopping or dining. Some even began to find her boring, but Edith Wharton understood a certain type of woman as well or better than anyone who ever wrote a book. Undine was narcissistic, beautiful, manipulative, clever (but not overly intelligent or curious), and, above all, ambitious. She was more ruthless and eviscerating than a mafia don. Eventually, one of her captivated followers might notice her complete lack of concern for anyone but herself and her lack of interest in anything other than shopping or dining. Some even began to find her boring, but as a reader I was never bored by her. She was a fascinating piece of work and the book is absolutely wonderful.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    [4+] Shrewd and shallow, Undine is constantly striving for more... more status, more money, more love. I felt no sympathy for her but was nevertheless riveted to Wharton’s brilliant, ruthless character study.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Olive Fellows (abookolive)

    Check out my analysis of Undine Spragg over on Booktube! Check out my analysis of Undine Spragg over on Booktube!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Anthea Syrokou

    If I had to choose an author who has created one of the most selfish, snooty and self-absorbed leading ladies, I think Edith Wharton would be a strong contender. The protagonist in The Custom of the Country, Undine Spragg, (yes, that’s her name — Undie for short) has got to be all that and more. Set in New York and Paris in 1913, this novel captures the frivolous, self-indulgent antics of the rich upper class at the time. I wanted to see the character of Undine grow and learn from many of her mis If I had to choose an author who has created one of the most selfish, snooty and self-absorbed leading ladies, I think Edith Wharton would be a strong contender. The protagonist in The Custom of the Country, Undine Spragg, (yes, that’s her name — Undie for short) has got to be all that and more. Set in New York and Paris in 1913, this novel captures the frivolous, self-indulgent antics of the rich upper class at the time. I wanted to see the character of Undine grow and learn from many of her mistakes, and develop some type of empathy as she paraded herself amongst the elite New Yorkers, attending one soirée after another, in her stylish dresses sent to her from exclusive Parisian dress-makers, but just when I thought this would happen as Wharton’s writing teased me into believing that it would, I was left feeling betrayed and stupefied. How can a person not feel anything after all the horrible things that occurred to the people she supposedly loved, primarily because of her own quest to buy all that is fashionable in society — and to hell with what happens to the people helping her acquire the monetary funds to be able to do this? Even if it includes Mr and Mrs Spragg — the protagonist’s own parents! Mr and Mrs Spragg have given into their daughter’s every want since she was in the crib — they live in fear and are always nervous around their daughter and her many outbursts. It is this very reason that they appease her; to avoid her explosive tirades. They don’t dare go against her. If you add a society that encourages men to work to buy everything their partner wants; a society that teaches its men to avoid having any female hear about their day at work, or about any money issues, is it any wonder many Undine Spraggs would exist — gallivanting around town trying to find the greatest catch and then ditching them when another great catch appears before them? I felt for many of the characters Undine trampled on to get her way for the sole purpose of having the finest and to be seen in the finest restaurants and hotels. My heart went out to one of the leading men, Ralph Marvell. He was one of the unfortunate victims as he loses all his self-worth to appease Undine. He suffered physically and mentally for her; in order to understand her and to keep her happy, he loses so much of his self. But is that enough for the selfish Undine? The reader would think it is. I also felt for Ralph Marvell’s desire to write a novel. It’s fascinating that we see through him, perhaps, Edith Wharton’s passion for writing. I too as an author felt the way he felt and could relate immensely to the passion that stirred within him when he wrote, and the despair when he couldn’t find the time to write and to pursue his interests. As I kept reading, phrases like “the grass is always greener” and ironically “ keeping up with the Joneses” kept appearing in my mind. I also thought that the more this character attained, the more she wanted. The fact that Undine gets what she wants all her life by everyone caving into her demands, especially her nervous and defeated parents, the more she doesn’t really know what she wants for herself. She lacks moral discipline. She also lacks any business sense, after all, women were kept in the dark when it came to “mundane issues” such as how yet another bill charged by some Parisian milliner would be paid? Perhaps if they made it their business they may have had some clue that money doesn’t grow on the horse-chestnut trees lining the Champs-Élysées? In many fiction books, the reader usually expects the character to evolve and to show some growth. After thinking about this, I realised that this isn’t always the case in real life. Perhaps, Edith Wharton believed that as well, especially being privy to the elite society she writes about. Perhaps she saw too many getting swept up in the establishment, in materialism — as it swallowed them up with its pretences — its sparkle. The only thing real with Undine Spragg are the pearls and other jewellery pieces that are gifted to her from her male suitors, and the many material things she acquires from others. I thought the following quote sums up the character of Undine Spragg: “She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” Edith Wharton, once again, wrote another masterpiece depicting the New York creme de la creme. Her ability to add satire, sarcasm, and to depict the cold and ugly truth about such a superficial world where everyone pretends and does not really feel, is remarkable. Her unique, innate ability to draw out human qualities through dialogue and actions in such a credible way, shine through in this novel as they do in many of her other masterpieces. She is quite gifted because she creates such ruthless, selfish characters, yet the reader still cares about finding out what happens to them. I wish there was a sequel to this novel as I would love to find out what happens to many of the characters. This was another brilliant, beautiful and thought-provoking read.

  17. 5 out of 5

    [P]

    I have a saying which is that the greatest trick that man ever pulled was to convince women that they are free. I’m sure many of you are raising your eyebrows at that. I’m serious though. Years ago men tried to control women by keeping them locked up in housework, in children, in piety. Then we realised that by doing so, although we posses them, we aren’t benefitting from it in the way that we would like. No, what we want, what we have always wanted, is for them to look nice, to leave us alone t I have a saying which is that the greatest trick that man ever pulled was to convince women that they are free. I’m sure many of you are raising your eyebrows at that. I’m serious though. Years ago men tried to control women by keeping them locked up in housework, in children, in piety. Then we realised that by doing so, although we posses them, we aren’t benefitting from it in the way that we would like. No, what we want, what we have always wanted, is for them to look nice, to leave us alone to pursue our own interests, and yet to give us what we desire when we desire it. For that women needed to be convinced of their emancipation. This freedom, in my opinion, is a mirage. I believe that women are socialised to exercise their ‘free will’ in a way that most pleases men, i.e. they are taught to be promiscuous, to not want commitment, to be ok with all kinds of sexual congress, to be obsessed with their appearance, etc. Furthermore, they have been taught to be satisfied with scraps of attention, to appreciate the glittery, the sparkling, the bright and blinding; which are all things that men can give them with little effort on their part. Of course, not all women fall for the trick, I’m not saying that, but that doesn’t call into question the entire theory. Just look around you, at TV, at pop stars, and so on. Society is ordered in such a way as to create vacuous, easy, and lovely looking women. And this situation is getting worse, the numbers are growing with each new generation. Take it from a man, someone who has been dating girls for a number of years. I’m not taking the moral high ground here, I’m as bad as anyone; I, too, have benefited. Remarkably, these ideas, which have played on my mind for quite some time, form the basis of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, which was published in 1913. In fact, one character, Charles Bowen, engages in a conversation, about half-way through the novel, in which similar points to my own are raised: "The average American looks down on his wife [...] How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph for instance–you say his wife’s extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that’s not what’s wrong. It’s normal for a man to work hard for a woman–what’s abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it.” “To tell Undine? She’d be bored to death if he did!” “Just so; she’d even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it’s against the custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man’s again–I don’t mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in THEM.” Mrs. Fairford, sinking back into her chair, sat gazing at the vertiginous depths above which his thought seemed to dangle her. “YOU don’t? The American man doesn’t–the most slaving, self-effacing, self-sacrificing–?” “Yes; and the most indifferent: there’s the point. The ‘slaving’s’ no argument against the indifference To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American man lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.” “Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his money on his wife?” “Not necessarily–but it’s a want of imagination to fancy it’s all he owes her. Look about you and you’ll see what I mean. Why does the European woman interest herself so much more in what the men are doing? Because she’s so important to them that they make it worth her while! She’s not a parenthesis, as she is here–she’s in the very middle of the picture. I’m not implying that Ralph isn’t interested in his wife–he’s a passionate, a pathetic exception. But even he has to conform to an environment where all the romantic values are reversed. Where does the real life of most American men lie? In some woman’s drawing-room or in their offices? The answer’s obvious, isn’t it? The emotional centre of gravity’s not the same in the two hemispheres. In the effete societies it’s love, in our new one it’s business. In America the real crime passionnel is a ‘big steal’–there’s more excitement in wrecking railways than homes.” Bowen paused to light another cigarette, and then took up his theme. “Isn’t that the key to our easy divorces? If we cared for women in the old barbarous possessive way do you suppose we’d give them up as readily as we do? The real paradox is the fact that the men who make, materially, the biggest sacrifices for their women, should do least for them ideally and romantically. And what’s the result–how do the women avenge themselves? All my sympathy’s with them, poor deluded dears, when I see their fallacious little attempt to trick out the leavings tossed them by the preoccupied male–the money and the motors and the clothes–and pretend to themselves and each other that THAT’S what really constitutes life! Oh, I know what you’re going to say–it’s less and less of a pretense with them, I grant you; they’re more and more succumbing to the force of the suggestion; but here and there I fancy there’s one who still sees through the humbug, and knows that money and motors and clothes are simply the big bribe she’s paid for keeping out of some man’s way!” I’ve included the discussion almost in its entirety because it is so fabulous. Reading it was one of those miracle discoveries that you get every so often in literature, when someone articulates almost exactly your own thoughts and feelings. The focus of the novel is Undine Spragg, a self-centred but very beautiful young woman. She is a poster-girl for the dangers of socialisation; she embodies my, and Charles Bowen’s, ideas about the way that women are raised and taught to behave. Her mother is weak and subservient, maybe even intimidated by her daughter; her father appears to believe that she should have everything she wants, no matter how unreasonable. Indeed, Abner Spragg does exactly what I was talking about at the beginning of this review: unable to engage with his daughter properly he simply throws something shiny or new and expensive her way in order to pacify her. He doesn’t do so for sexual gain, of course, but he is putting in place a pattern of behaviour and creating and re-enforcing an attitude towards relations between men and women that will carry the girl throughout her life. Later, when she starts forming serious relationships, she brings the same expectations to them, which is that the man ought to always satisfy her desires. In these relationships, the male concern is sexual, but they take on the paternal role: they keep their true thoughts and feelings to themselves, they shelter her from business matters, and so on. Undine’s role, both in her own mind and in the minds of the men she encounters, is simply to look beautiful. In a way, you could call The Custom of the Country a feminist novel, because, of course, socialisation of women, male attitudes towards women, are feminist concerns. However, Wharton is too clever and too deft a writer to fall into the trap of writing a political tract. She appears to be saying it is a great shame that women are kept at arm’s length, are taught and encouraged to be beautiful and little else, but she does not ever really blame anyone for this state of affairs, she is entirely even-handed, and she certainly is no man hater. Ralf, one of Undine’s husbands, is, for example, probably the most sympathetic person in the whole novel; he is shown to be truly in love in with his wife and devoted to his son. Yet, Undine’s and Ralf’s marriage is not on an equal footing either. He doesn’t want to bore her with financial or business matters, while she thinks it his responsibility to ensure her amusement. Crucially, Undine doesn’t want a relationship on an equal footing: she wants to be pampered and spoiled and allowed to do what she likes Undine Spragg is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature. It would be easy to see her as a typical conniving, scheming femme fatale, but she isn’t really. What is most interesting about Undine is that she truly believes that she has a right to what she wants, that no one and nothing ought to be able to stop her. That is not the same as a traditional femme fatale, a Becky Sharp, who know that they are bad or that they are doing bad things, and don’t care. Undine thinks she is absolutely in the right; she would be mortified to think that she is in the wrong. There is, in fact, a great deal of naivety and innocence in her. She twice marries the wrong kind of man, not exactly for money as you might anticipate, but because she doesn’t seem to understand the relationship between her desires and money [i.e. that the things she wants cost a lot of money and that money doesn’t simply come to hand when it is called for]. Both men aren’t rich, and yet Undine thinks they should still do all they can to please her and cannot comprehend why they are unable to. She also makes many social faux pas; she does not use society, or manipulate it; she is essentially clueless, but eager to learn. The upshot is that Undine is both monstrous, almost sociopathic, and yet somehow strangely charming, strangely endearing. And, I think, that the sympathy I felt towards her comes from me being a man, because, again, being a man I like, I respond to, beautiful but child-like women, just as the male characters in the novel do. If this is all the book had to say it would still be a brilliant, forward-thinking novel. However, it raises many other fascinating questions, deals with other engrossing themes, such as money, divorce, family, parentage, duty etc, etc. Perhaps the overriding theme, the one that ties many of the other themes/ideas together, is that of old vs new. Undine’s battles, her disagreements with the grand old families, the Marvells and de Chelles, is indicative of the tension that Wharton sees between old values and new, the old world and the new world. However, Undine is not quite as modern as she may seem at first glance. She instinctively respects these traditional families, although only because she feels them to be important and respected by others. It is Elmer Moffatt, my favourite character in the novel, who truly embodies the new age. Moffatt is unrefined, he has no great name or heritage behind him; he is brash and loud and straight-talking; he is a speculator, a self-made man. He is, in fact, The American Dream. There is a poignant scene towards the end of the novel, although in order to understand it some explanation is required. Undine has married a French aristocrat, who, albeit titled, and therefore giving the appearance of wealth, has very little ready cash. Undine, needing money for her trips to Paris, arranges for a man to come and view and put a value on some very expensive de Chelles family heirlooms; and Moffatt is the man who comes to buy them. He offers two million dollars, but de Chelles turns the offer down. The Frenchman is incredulous, he cannot fathom why Undine would even have the heirlooms evaluated; there is no question, he says, of them ever being sold. For Undine, however, they are merely objects, which are pleasant to look at but only if they are not taking the place of other, more pressing, desires. Anyway, eventually, right at the end of the book, Moffatt is seen bringing these heirlooms home. He has, of course, bought them. de Chelles and his set, his values, his way of life even, is on the way out. If I have any criticism to make of The Custom of the Country it is that Undine’s second marriage too closely resembles her first. Consequently, you feel as though it is unnecessary, as though you’ve already been through this already, that Wharton had made the same points previously, and this makes the novel drag a little bit in the final third. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense that Undine would make the same mistake twice, i.e. that she would again marry someone who is seemingly well-to-do, but financially in dire straights, because she would foresee, you’d imagine, that she would find herself in the same position that she so loathed before. I feel as though Wharton could have cut the de Chelles marriage out completely, and if she had done so the novel would have been even more wonderful, more brutal. In any case, this minor quibble about pacing aside, The Custom of the Country is one of the most satisfying novels I have read this year.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Trish

    ...However, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them. Edith Wharton dazzles again! This time we meet only child and rich spoiled brat, Undine Spragg, who is on a mission to ingratiate herself in New York's upperclass society but is having trouble making the best of her limited funds and connections. How is a beautiful and charming girl to be taken seriously when all that matters in thi ...However, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them. Edith Wharton dazzles again! This time we meet only child and rich spoiled brat, Undine Spragg, who is on a mission to ingratiate herself in New York's upperclass society but is having trouble making the best of her limited funds and connections. How is a beautiful and charming girl to be taken seriously when all that matters in this exclusive world is wealth? Marry into money, of course! Undine was born for this lifestyle, all she needs is a benefactor husband she can mold and manipulate into giving her what she wants whenever she wants it. Enter Ralph Marvell - he's handsome, well bred, in line to inherit, and completely enamored by Undine's fresh beauty and perspective. She thinks he's the perfect man to cater to her every need but is love and adoration enough to change the listless poet? Undine is ambitious and driven where Ralph is languorous. How the two of their lives intertwine and change each other and the people around them is the brilliant and tragic story of The Custom of the Country. Like always, I am enamored by the characters and settings in this novel. Wharton has once again written a masterpiece that transcends time and place. It is a harrowing expose on the realities of marriage, business, parenthood, greed, missed opportunities, and how, in the real world, love is rarely ever enough.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Gill

    A very good read, although I didn't find it as moving as The House of Mirth. What a 'heroine' Edith Wharton has created in Undine. I spent most of the book longing for her to get her comeuppance. You'll have to read the book yourself to find out whether or not she did! There was a part near the middle where I thought the story was becoming a bit slow moving, but the final third certainly ratcheted things up. I thought the description of the Chateau de Saint Desert was brilliant. Definitely worth re A very good read, although I didn't find it as moving as The House of Mirth. What a 'heroine' Edith Wharton has created in Undine. I spent most of the book longing for her to get her comeuppance. You'll have to read the book yourself to find out whether or not she did! There was a part near the middle where I thought the story was becoming a bit slow moving, but the final third certainly ratcheted things up. I thought the description of the Chateau de Saint Desert was brilliant. Definitely worth reading.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sketchbook

    The most Balzacian of Wharton's novels. ~~ A monumental epic of America (1913) lurching into materialistic vulgarity as personified by an intriguing Gatsbyesque financial manipulator and a Becky Sharp from "Vanity Fair" who is detestable. Wharton spent almost 5 years writing this, off and on, w time out for short stories and "Ethan Frome." A brutal, pessimistic view that some critics say kept her from winning the Nobel Prize. Clearly, Wharton is appalled by her own anti-heroine who has no moral The most Balzacian of Wharton's novels. ~~ A monumental epic of America (1913) lurching into materialistic vulgarity as personified by an intriguing Gatsbyesque financial manipulator and a Becky Sharp from "Vanity Fair" who is detestable. Wharton spent almost 5 years writing this, off and on, w time out for short stories and "Ethan Frome." A brutal, pessimistic view that some critics say kept her from winning the Nobel Prize. Clearly, Wharton is appalled by her own anti-heroine who has no moral center. Published just before W1 blew up the world.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Roman Clodia

    Despite this being just over a hundred years old now (published 1913), it feels completely modern as Wharton casts a disenchanted eye over American mores and the products of American consumerist culture. Undine Spragg (hilariously, her nouveau riche parents named her for a curling tong her father invented!), is the ultimate consumer and believes her beauty entitles her to wealth, material possessions and social status. Uneducated though not stupid, she manipulates her way through the book, colle Despite this being just over a hundred years old now (published 1913), it feels completely modern as Wharton casts a disenchanted eye over American mores and the products of American consumerist culture. Undine Spragg (hilariously, her nouveau riche parents named her for a curling tong her father invented!), is the ultimate consumer and believes her beauty entitles her to wealth, material possessions and social status. Uneducated though not stupid, she manipulates her way through the book, collecting and discarding husbands, abandoning her parents once her father can no longer afford to send her an allowance, and having little time for her son, all on her way to her ideal 'deserved' position: at the top of society. I've seen Undine compared to Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) but the difference is that Becky really is sharp and is more alive than either the virtuous but wet Amelia or the gallery of grotesques and rogues who people Thackeray's world. Wharton's vision is different: Undine isn't an anti-heroine, we're not on her side, and we watch, chilled, as she progresses through the book. Wharton is a fine enough writer not to make her protagonist a monster, and we have some compassion for her inadequacies : books bore her, art is a mystery to her soul, love appears intermittently but wanes all too quickly, and however many high-fashion gowns and hats she has, accessorised with diamonds and pearls, she's still unsatisfied and hungry for the next big thing, always receding, which can make her happy. She genuinely can't and doesn't understand where she's going wrong - even by the end, (view spoiler)[ married to an American railroad billionaire (hide spoiler)] , she's still not happy and is searching for the next thing to make her life perfect. Wharton's writing is elegant and unflinching, vivid and scenic as she shows us Undine and her progress over a ten year period. There is some 'culture clash' stuff (Americans vs Europeans, Old New York vs new Wall Street) and there's no-one here that we can admire - but that's not, I think, Wharton's aim - instead, she gives us a coolly analytical and prescient view of what happens to a society that is all about exteriority, social status, money and possessions - everything, it seems is available to be bought and sold, and Undine is the result.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Anne

    Brilliant character study of a Narcissist, Undine Spragg, and the varying fates and responses of the people who love her or come under her thrall. Beautifully narrated by Barbara Caruso.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    I love The Age of Innocence but I wonder if that love is a fluke. I never finished The House of Mirth because of its coincidental encounters and melodramatic confrontations, and I was able to pass over similar faults in The Custom of the Country only because the often clunky dramatic scenes are separated by long stretches of brilliantly measured descriptive prose, acerbic dissections of manners and motivations. Also, I wanted to know how it would end. There’s a page-turning fascination to the ad I love The Age of Innocence but I wonder if that love is a fluke. I never finished The House of Mirth because of its coincidental encounters and melodramatic confrontations, and I was able to pass over similar faults in The Custom of the Country only because the often clunky dramatic scenes are separated by long stretches of brilliantly measured descriptive prose, acerbic dissections of manners and motivations. Also, I wanted to know how it would end. There’s a page-turning fascination to the adventures of Elmer Moffat and Undine Spragg, middle American rustics respectively backed by self-made and second-generation fortunes, who are shown in their intermittently coinciding devastations of the historiated sanctums of Washington Square and the Faubourg Saint Germain. Opening The Custom of the Country, the last thing I expected to find was a premonition of Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Wharton’s ear for Western speech is perfect; Moffat sounds exactly like Martin Sheen as Kit; the same simple words in the same spare rhythm. “Say…” Elmer and Undine’s first meeting is just like Kit and Holly’s: a boy from the wrong side of the tracks asks the local flower of what passes for gentility to take a walk with him. Elmer and Undine in Europe made me think of Kit and Holly taking hostages in that rich man’s house – the house full of delicate things the scion is too delicate to defend from intruders. And in their careers of despoilation there’s the same strange mixture of rapacity and innocence, obscenity and prudery, deadly violence and childish reasoning. Comparison of James and Wharton is usually invidious, with James coming out ahead; and yes, her dialogue rarely attains the nuance and suggestion of his – but when it comes to American types, she sure nailed us hinterlanders. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKykxE...

  24. 4 out of 5

    Heidi

    Throughout the entire novel, I just kept thinking of my youngest son’s favorite childhood book— If You Give A Mouse a Cookie. That’s the entire storyline, right up until the ending. Undine Spragg is thoroughly unlikeable, but she is the most committed mouse in this book where the newly rich meet the Guilded Age Society. Amazingly this century-old classic holds up and despite not liking the main character, I couldn’t help but respect her brutal Scarlett O’Hara qualities!

  25. 4 out of 5

    Terris

    I very much enjoyed this story of Undine Spragg who, in 1867 wants more. The reader goes along for the ride as Undine tries to work her way up the social ladder thinking each new step will make her happier. And guess what -- well... you know the answer ;) And if you're familiar at all with Edith Wharton, you know there's always a little twist in the end, and this one was in the very last sentence! I'm glad I finally got to this one. I very much enjoyed this story of Undine Spragg who, in 1867 wants more. The reader goes along for the ride as Undine tries to work her way up the social ladder thinking each new step will make her happier. And guess what -- well... you know the answer ;) And if you're familiar at all with Edith Wharton, you know there's always a little twist in the end, and this one was in the very last sentence! I'm glad I finally got to this one.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    Oh Undine! I have to address you, but I must confess that I am very nearly lost for words. I have never met anyone quite like you – in fact or in fiction – and you have made such an impression. You really are a force of nature. You had to be, to have lived the life that you have lived. Looking back it’s hard to believe that you were the daughter of a self-made man, that you came from Apex in North Carolina. But, of course, you were the apple of your parents’ eyes, and they were prepared to invest Oh Undine! I have to address you, but I must confess that I am very nearly lost for words. I have never met anyone quite like you – in fact or in fiction – and you have made such an impression. You really are a force of nature. You had to be, to have lived the life that you have lived. Looking back it’s hard to believe that you were the daughter of a self-made man, that you came from Apex in North Carolina. But, of course, you were the apple of your parents’ eyes, and they were prepared to invest everything they had, and to do without themselves, to help you reach the very highest echelons of New York society. You always got what you wanted. Always. Did you appreciate what they did for you? Did you understand how much they sacrificed? I think not; there was nothing in your words, your actions, your demeanour to suggest that you did. At first I was inclined to blame your parents for spoiling you, but I came to realise that it wasn’t them, it was you. I began to feel sorry for them. You made some mistakes as you climbed the ladder, because you didn’t quite understand quite how that rarefied society worked, but you were a wonderfully quick learner. You changed your behaviour, your appearance, your expectations, to become the person you wanted to be, the person you needed to be, to achieve your ambitions. And you succeeded. You drew the attention of Ralph Marvell, the son of one of the oldest, grandest families in New York. He loved your beauty, your difference; and you loved everything that he stood for. And so you married ….. Sadly, it wasn’t a happy ending. You didn’t understand that the families at the pinnacle of society were not the wealthiest. You couldn’t understand that Ralph didn’t share your ambitions – I don’t think that you even realised that was possible – and certainly it was quite beyond your comprehension that he dreamed of a writing a novel. He never did, he had not one iota of your drive and ambition, and I suspect that he lacked the talent. Ralph drifted through life, disappointed that he could not expand your narrow horizons, that he could not open your eyes to the beauty of the art and literature that he loved. He was part of an old order that was dying, and you were part of a new order that would adapt and survive. You learned how to bend and even change society’s rules to allow you to do exactly what you wanted to do. You really didn’t understand him, you broke him, and my heart broke for him. I even began to feel at little sorry for you, despite your selfishness, because there was so much that you didn’t understand. There are more important things than money, luxury, fashion, and social position. Things can’t really make you happy, because there will always be other things to want, there will always be things beyond your reach. You learned so much, but you never learned that. There would be more marriages, more travels, more possessions …. There would be more damage. My heart broke again, for the son you so often seemed to forget you had. And though you would never admit it, you were damaged by your own actions. But you were a survivor Undine, weren’t you? You did learn a little; I learned a little about your past, and I came to feel that I understood you a little better; most of all, I do think that when you finally married the right man it made all the difference. It wasn’t quite enough for me to say that I liked you, but I was always fascinated by you. Now I find myself wanting to do what Alice did at the end of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I want to throw you in the air and say, “You’re just a fictional character!” But I can’t. Because you are so utterly real; not a heroine, not a villainess, but a vivid, three-dimensional human being, with strengths and weaknesses. You are perfectly realised; your world and everything, everything around you is perfectly realised. The telling of your story is compelling, beautiful and so very profound. It speaks of its times and it has things to say that are timeless. Because, though times may change, human nature stays the same. Edith Wharton was a genius – it’s as simple as that.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Suzanne

    The "In" Crowd By Dobie Gray I'm in with the in crowd I go where the in crowd goes I'm in with the in crowd And I know what the in crowd knows Any time of the year, don't you hear? Dressin' fine, makin' time We breeze up and down the street We get respect from the people we meet They make way day or night They know the in crowd is out of sight I'm in with the in crowd I know every latest dance When you're in with the in crowd It's easy to find romance The heroine of Wharton’s The Custom of the Countr The "In" Crowd By Dobie Gray I'm in with the in crowd I go where the in crowd goes I'm in with the in crowd And I know what the in crowd knows Any time of the year, don't you hear? Dressin' fine, makin' time We breeze up and down the street We get respect from the people we meet They make way day or night They know the in crowd is out of sight I'm in with the in crowd I know every latest dance When you're in with the in crowd It's easy to find romance The heroine of Wharton’s The Custom of the Country would have been born a few decades too early to have known this song from the 1960s, but I couldn’t help thinking of it as I read about her social-climbing and romantic exploits. Undine Spragg navigates her way out of small town America in the early years of the 20th century, landing in New York, then the fashionable capitals of Europe, always chasing the next stylish clique, or what she has been told lately is the “in” thing -- until she gets wind of something better. Then it’s “Ooooh, shiny!” and she’s off again after that. She would have been contemporary with the early years of the show Downton Abbey and I kept imagining her manipulating her way into the drawing or dining rooms there, and the subtle eye-rolling the Crawleys would have done when confronted with this American upstart. Beautiful and much indulged by her parents, the early chapters of this book reminded me of Mildred Pierce’s fanatical devotion to her daughter’s whims and desires, and I thought, this can’t turn out well. It doesn’t. It’s a credit to the writing of the brilliant Edith Wharton that she’s able to keep us fascinated by the mental processes and actions of this supremely self-serving and shallow woman, even while we despise her behavior. Others have said that Wharton makes Undine a “sympathetic” character. I don’t think even Wharton can do that. I didn’t find her sympathetic, but Undine is intriguing and getting inside her head the way we do is an adventure worth having. While never liking her, I still wanted to see what she would do next, what would happen because of it, and how she would rationalize it in her pretty, narcissistic little head. Of course, the limitations society put on women of that era is a common theme in Wharton’s work. About the only means women of that time had of gaining power and controlling their destiny was through linking up with powerful men. This might be done by leveraging money of their own to make a good “match” or by their knowing how to use their attractiveness, if they were lucky enough to have that resource available to them. Countess Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence and Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, as well-to-do women in that era and environment, have similar challenges, but entirely different ways of dealing with them. At least they try to bring some level of integrity to the situation. Then there’s Undine. She’s no rocket scientist, but she knows how to weaponize her beauty to get what she wants. Not at all intellectual and easily bored by the details of “business” and how wealth is created, she compensates with a killer instinct about how to manipulate people and has none of the pesky moral qualms that would prevent her from doing so. I love House of Mirth a lot, and The Age of Innocence, of course. But I think I’d rank The Custom of the Country ahead of The Age of Innocence in my own enjoyment tiering, in spite of TAoI’s Pulitzer status. This one and its characters were more vivid to me, more intriguing and compelling, in spite of the fact I was put off by Undine’s moral character, or lack thereof. I don’t know exactly where she would fall in the modern DSM diagnostic system, but I’m sure a good therapist could have had a field day with a patient like this. Poor Ralph. Poor little Paul. And the prose, of course, is stellar. My God, Edith Wharton could write. The In Crowd, Dobie Gray, 1964 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOWO-... The In Crowd cover by Bryan Ferry, 2007 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRH1X...

  28. 5 out of 5

    Laysee

    Published in 1913, “The Custom of the Country” depicts the lures and dangers of materialism in New York at a time when fashionable people boarded or lived in hotels. The quest for wealth and upward social mobility is a normal human ambition – an ancient drive that never grows old. It is a common enough theme but Wharton’s exploration is epic via an anti-heroine who is vile and yet so irresistible. This is my fourth Wharton novel and I marvel at her flair for creating beautiful, vain, and self-ser Published in 1913, “The Custom of the Country” depicts the lures and dangers of materialism in New York at a time when fashionable people boarded or lived in hotels. The quest for wealth and upward social mobility is a normal human ambition – an ancient drive that never grows old. It is a common enough theme but Wharton’s exploration is epic via an anti-heroine who is vile and yet so irresistible. This is my fourth Wharton novel and I marvel at her flair for creating beautiful, vain, and self-serving female protagonists who are ruthless in seeking wealth and membership in the highest echelons of society. Undine Spragg is a supremely attractive young lady whose family has moved from Apex City to New York in hopes that she will gain entry into the gilded sanctum of the rich and influential. Undine prides herself on two things she claims to live for: amusement and respectability. The easiest route is marriage. The novel’s energy is swept up in Undine’s triumph in marrying one rich man after another when her marriage fails to satisfy her materially. To her, marriages are merely "experiments in happiness". I derived a subversive thrill in anticipating her conquests. Wharton paints a lush and enticing picture of a lavish lifestyle available to a beautiful woman who has a wealthy husband: vacations in Paris, staying at fancy hotels, frolicking in the countryside, dining like royalty, going to the opera, and shopping up a storm while your family picks up the bill. No wonder Undine throws a titanic fit whenever her expectations cannot be exceeded. In many ways, Undine reminds me of Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth” who is fanatically obsessed with marrying well. It is hard to like self-absorbed narcissistic women who are unapologetically opportunistic in their voracious pursuit of opulence and self-aggrandizement. With Lily Bart, I felt disgust but also pity, and even a modicum of respect for her at the end. With Undine Spragg, I felt only a revulsion that did not abate. (view spoiler)[She treats her parents shabbily and feels toward them only “sentimental pity” despite their having simplified their lifestyle to fund her extravagance. Her first husband, genteel Ralph Marvell, she holds in contempt for his inability to keep up with her flamboyant spending habits. She blackmails him over the custody of their son and the consequences are tragic. Even her 9-year-old son, Paul, is astute enough to see through her lies. By the end of the novel, Undine remains completely unchanged, devoid of any redeeming quality. Lily Bart, in contrast, has more self-respect. (hide spoiler)] One wonders if the likes of Lily Bart and Undine Spragg are products of their social world. What is the custom of the country in the early twentieth century? According to Bowen, a friend of the Marvell family, it is against the custom of the country for a man to tell a woman about his work or interest her in it. The custom is for men to slave for women, make financial sacrifices, and to lavish their fortune on their wives. Could this account for the expectations women like Undine have and their sense of entitlement? Of Ralph, Bowen says, "It's normal for a man to work hard for a woman - what's abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it." However, Bowen is mistaken where Undine is concerned. There is little point for Ralph to tell her about his business and struggles because she strikes me as incapable of taking an interest in her husband's work. Undine does not care about anyone because she loves only herself. “The Custom of the Country” is a typical Wharton story that ushers the reader into a rather beguiling culture of a far flung era. Beautifully written, it is an entertaining and enjoyable read.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bloodorange

    Some quick thoughts: I think this would make an excellent entry-level Wharton novel for a young reader who does not fully grasp the realities of the Old World and the Old New York, but is ready to learn. The protagonist, like many people in our time, strives after a certain lifestyle, the details of which become clearer with her apparently fairy-tale social ascent, as she grows aware of what is available, or unavailable, to her.Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she w Some quick thoughts: I think this would make an excellent entry-level Wharton novel for a young reader who does not fully grasp the realities of the Old World and the Old New York, but is ready to learn. The protagonist, like many people in our time, strives after a certain lifestyle, the details of which become clearer with her apparently fairy-tale social ascent, as she grows aware of what is available, or unavailable, to her.Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.Undine Spragg appears to me disturbingly modern; like another mesmerizing beauty, Marylin Monroe, she believes sensuality is overrated, and is only excited by men's power and what they have to offer; like Amy Dunne of Gone Girl, of which Wharton's novel reminded me at times, Undine uses men as vehicles to attain her goals, discarding them once she notices they don't quite "fit into the picture". Social criticism: 'The Custom of the Country' discusses not only social aspiration, mobility, and the increasingly popular institution of divorce, but also the tremendous cost of pretending the latter does not exist. More accessibly than in Wharton's other novels, yet still subtly, the author presents the realities of the changing social scene of New York, and the arrival of the parvenu 'invaders' entering the world and the lives of the Old New York high society:What Ralph understood and appreciated was Mrs. Spragg's unaffected frankness in talking of her early life. Here was no retrospective pretense of an opulent past, such as the other Invaders were given to parading before the bland but undeceived subject race. The Spraggs had been "plain people" and had not yet learned to be ashamed of it. The fact drew them much closer to the Dagonet ideals than any sham elegance in the past tense.Definitely recommended as an intelligent beach read:)

  30. 4 out of 5

    Carol Storm

    I loved THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, but this Edith Wharton novel just did not work for me. I get the fact that Undine Spragg is supposed to be a cold and heartless social climber. She's the kind of girl you see in books all the time, but rarely in real life. She gets away with murder. She breaks hearts and ruins lives without ever feeling remorse or really getting what she wants. This is a type that has been done before. Many, many times before. Becky Sharp? Scarlett O'Hara? Edith Wharton hates Undine S I loved THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, but this Edith Wharton novel just did not work for me. I get the fact that Undine Spragg is supposed to be a cold and heartless social climber. She's the kind of girl you see in books all the time, but rarely in real life. She gets away with murder. She breaks hearts and ruins lives without ever feeling remorse or really getting what she wants. This is a type that has been done before. Many, many times before. Becky Sharp? Scarlett O'Hara? Edith Wharton hates Undine Spragg so much that she forgets to make her charming, or lively, or even energetic enough to hold our interest. You can believe in a bad girl with real appetites (think of Scarlett stuffing herself at the Twelve Oaks barbecue) but how can someone who's selfish and evil be so passive and boring? Undine doesn't lust for real pleasures, like food or drink or sex. She just wants to be in the "best society." But Edith Wharton wants to have it both ways, creating a coarse character but never allowing her any coarse pleasures or even any coarse desires. Meanwhile, the timid Ashely Wilkes style chump that Undine heartlessly ruins (Ralph Marvell) is such a crashing bore that you can't possibly believe he's much of a loss to mankind. It's hard to believe he wants Undine in a physical sense (no Edith Wharton male ever does that, unless he's a villain and a bounder from the lower depths) and it's even harder to believe he'd drop dead of horror and shame if he found out she was less than pure. Undine's real main squeeze is Elmer Moffatt, who is the only character in the book I liked. He's the one character who actually seems to enjoy life. When Undine tries to explain to him that her dainty little husband can't stand to imagine her being engaged to Elmer early in life, because "they don't like a girl to have been engaged more than once" Elmer replies, "well, gee whiz, how'd they expect her fair young life to pass? Knitting tidies for church fairs and playing 'Holy City' on the melodeon?" That was the one line in the book that actually made me smile. Oh, and one of Undine's girl chums when she was a kid was named Indiana Frusk. Edith Wharton seems to think that's just too, too, vulgar, but I thought it was kind of cute. I think I'll write a romance novel about a girl named Indiana Frusk!

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