Thursday, May 17, 2012

"The New York Stories of Edith Wharton"

A reader or two may remember that I mentioned in early April that I was joyfully reading a collection of stories by Edith Wharton -- one of my favorite writers, about whom I have written here several times, including on 4/18/10, 2/22/12, and 4/18/12 -- on the plane in late March on my way home from two conferences on the East Coast, and that I said I would write about it when I finished. Somehow the book migrated to the bottom of my books-to-read-or-finish pile, but I finally got back to it and read the last few stories with great pleasure. This collection, “The New York Stories of Edith Wharton” (New York Review Books, 2007), selected by Roxana Robinson, is overflowing with wonderful stories, all describing the city where she lived for much of her life, and written over the course of her career. The first story in the collection, “Mrs. Manstey’s View,” happens to be the very first story that Wharton published. The final story, “Roman Fever,” is one of her most famous ones. The New York settings are so evocative, so precisely rendered. But best of all are the characters; they are always well drawn, always compelling. Every single one of them draws the reader in, and makes the reader wonder what will happen. Somehow Wharton manages to make us care without ever being sentimental or soft. The situations the characters find themselves in are both inevitable, because of the rigidity of society’s norms and expectations, and startlingly original. And the writing is amazing; Wharton makes it look easy, but it is so clear and yet so complex. There is, too, the old-fashioned pleasure of being caught up in the story, wanting to know what will happen next, and trusting the author absolutely to take us somewhere new, somewhere revelatory, even when in the midst of somewhere very familiar. In fact, there is something deliciously subversive about Wharton's writing. One theme that appears in several stories in this collection is that of writers writing under others’ names, or pretending to be other than whom they are; one wonders why this theme is important to Wharton. Perhaps she is exploring the question of what originality in writing means, and the blurring of borders. There is much about social class, about gender, about ethics, about sheer humanity. But it is never just “about” something. I am tempted to tell you about each and every one of these twenty stories, but do not have the space to do so. If you loved “The Age of Innocence” and “The House of Mirth,” you will love this collection as well. If you haven’t read much or any Wharton before, this volume would be an excellent place to start.

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