Tuesday, October 16, 2007

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton

The Book: Edith Wharton, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. Scribner's Hudson River Editions reprint, 20th printing, undated. Book is missing dust jacket, otherwise in very good condition, slightly cocked. Owner's signature and date (1984) are written on front flyleaf.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 1984

Tired as I was last night, I had a hard time falling asleep. I have one tiny sleeping pill, saved from another trip, and thought for a while about taking it. I thought about taking a couple of Benadryl. In the end I took nothing, and read a terrible novel until I finally fell asleep.

This book is the reason I don't take sleeping pills, but to explain that would give too much away. It is the story of Lily Bart, an impoverished and aging (at 29!) socialite in turn-of-the-century New York. Lily must make an advantageous marriage, or give up the society she loves. Unwilling to make the necessary compromises, she sabotages herself until she is left with nothing except the knowledge, finally, of who she is and what she wants -- too late.

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, written in 1905, is a capsule of its time and setting, but is also a truly modern novel. Lily's choices feel the same as my own, or my friends': the easy road or the hard? A received life, or a chosen one? How do we recognize true love when it finds us, and -- most pertinent to me, as I get older -- what is the role of the aging single woman in a society built around marriage and family?

The source of the book's title, a verse from Ecclesiastes ("The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth"), lets us know ahead of time that Lily's choices are the wrong ones. I'd like to do better than Lily Bart, and not taking the sleeping pill is a feeble gesture at it.

A very happy birthday to the astonishing Jennifer Jordan, whose anthology Expletive Deleted comes out from Bleak House in only four short weeks. Go pre-order it now.

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