The House of Mirth has cemented my love for Edith Wharton and I can now officially count her among my all-time favorite authors. Wharton's writing is top-notch, filled with wit, literary allusions, and historical references that show her intelligence and education. The House of Mirth is both a critique of the upper class New York society at the end of the nineteenth century, and the story of the rise and fall of Lily Bart, a socialite in that society.
This was not an easy book to read, not only because it is the sort of book where the sentences need to be savored and devoured, but also because it is a tragic story. From the very beginning there is a sense of impending doom that follows the reader until the very end. As the story progresses, the tension builds, and the anxiety felt by Lily and her friend and suitor, Lawrence Selden, becomes increasingly more palpable.
In some ways Lily Bart is not the most sympathetic of heroines. Her fate is largely determined by her own poor decisions, and there were several instances where I wanted to reach in the book and shake her. Her inability to choose between her desire to marry for love or for money prevents her from ending up with either. Yet, I could still sympathize with her plight because Wharton does an incredible job of showing how Lily is product of her environment, and how the society she lives in is also culpable for her fate.
Lily also has many personal flaws, which also make her less sympathetic including vanity, arrogance, materialism, and obliviousness to others' feelings—particularly those whom are socially beneath her—and yet there is a lot to admire about her as well. She is intelligent, though naive, and there is a strength in her that keeps her from taking the low road on several occasions, and keeps her striving to better herself and her position, despite her misfortunes. Lily, like many other characters in this novel, is complex and full of contradictions as are people in real life.
All in all, this was a fantastic, though depressing, read. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book or Wharton's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence, which I also adore, to anyone who enjoys the classics.