House of Mirth
by Edith Wharton
first published 1905
Set among the elegant brownstones of New York City and opulent country houses like gracious Bellomont on the Hudson, the novel creates a satiric portrayal of what Wharton herself called “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers” with a precision comparable to that of Proust. And her brilliant and complex characterization of the doomed Lily Bart, whose stunning beauty and dependence on marriage for economic survival reduce her to a decorative object, becomes an incisive commentary on the nature and status of women in that society. From her tragic attraction to bachelor lawyer Lawrence Selden to her desperate relationship with social-climbing Rosedale, Lily is all too much a product of the world indicated by the title, a phrase taken from Ecclesiastes: “The heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” For it is Lily’s very specialness that threatens the elegance and fulfillment she seeks in life.
Easily one of my all-time favorites (would I pick one that wasn't for Friday Feature?!?). I was absolutely fascinated by the heroine, Lily Bart. This is by far my favorite of Wharton's novels. Maybe it's because I relate to a female protagonist moreso than a male, but I don't think that's all. Wharton's descriptions are poetic, but never get in the way of the storytelling, in fact they add a great depth. When you summarize the plot, it sounds like the most boring thing you can think of (an impoverished but beautiful socialite's fall from New York high society), but the characterization and the completely alien rules of that society are engrossing. You feel such empathy for Lily, but at the same time, you don't necessarily have a great respect for her. If you haven't read any Wharton, I would suggest this as a sampling of her writing. It's about 370 pages, but it feels like a quick read. And anytime a novel can actually move me to tears, it's impressive.
My only complaint is that the viewpoint switches sometimes, which can be confusing if Lily's meeting a female, and you aren't sure who's impression you're reading.