Warning: this review does include some general spoilers.
Title: The House of Mirth
Read for: Erin Read’s Reading Buddies
Review Summary: An interesting story with intriguing characters, but the almost happy ending made me like it a lot less.
The House of Mirth is a “novel of manners” or a novel which focuses on social customs, often the customs surrounding marriage (think Jane Austen, for example). This particular novel focuses on high society in New York during the early 1900’s, a setting very familiar to the author, and was intended to highlight what she saw as the complete lack of anything worthwhile in that society. However, as the forward to my version pointed out, what still draws people to this book today is mostly the character of Lily Bart. Throughout the book we follow Lily’s attempts to marry for money, culminating in her fall from society when she is accused of being a man’s mistress.
The author’s writing style, as well as her subject matter, reminded me of Jane Austen. Perhaps it’s simply something about older books, but I found the writing unusually formal. This definitely wasn’t something that kept me from enjoying the writing though. I was still drawn into the plot, able to visualize the locations and feel for the characters. The only part of the writing I didn’t like was the attention to social details required to understand all the plot points. Especially at the beginning, I sometimes felt sure I was missing something! This is a problem not with the author’s writing (since she wrote for her contemporaries) but a problem of book version. And my book version (the penguin classics version pictured above), had unnecessary footnotes describing locations and a few useful word definitions but provided little social context.
The characters were definitely intriguing, in part because their motivations were so entirely different from anything in my experience. I was always curious about what they might do next! What at the end kept me from liking this book more was that I often didn’t like what they did next. I think I might have been able to like Lily even though she wanted to marry for money if she’d just seriously gone for it. Instead, her indecision ended up depriving her of a marriage for money or a marriage for love. Even worse, things frequently almost worked out and some little twist of fate caused everything to go wrong. Situations like that, where simple chance ruins everything, are one of my pet peeves in movies and books. They’re just too frustrating! In this case, the book was good enough to keep me reading past all of the bits where things almost worked out in hopes it would get better. But when it ended on the same note, with a so very nearly happy ending, it left me feeling dissatisfied with the whole book. If you’re ok with unhappy endings and don’t share my hatred for cruel twists of fate, the book was well written enough that I’d recommend it much more highly.
What are your novel pet peeves? Is there anything that bothers you enough to make you dislike an otherwise good book?