Book Review: Gilded Age

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Well, 2013 is off to a slower start than I anticipated, given that it took me three weeks to finish this book! Good thing I set the reading bar a little lower, because life just keeps getting busier and busier!

Gilded Age is Claire McMillan’s modern adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and although it was entertaining in its own right, it was a basic copy-and-paste version of the original plot. Lily Bart is now Ellie Hart, and she’s exchanged New York City for Cleveland. Most of the characters are named similarly to their Wharton counterparts, but they’re no less wealthy or tied to societal norms.

Society has just changed slightly since the turn of the century. McMillan adds a 21st century edge to the plot, giving Ellie a stint in rehab instead of a mere gambling problem. The most envied social circle–involving the Gryces, Trenors, and Dorsets–includes marijuana at their cocktail parties, while the wilder bunch–based on the Gormers–up the ante with harder drugs and partner-swapping.

An interesting aspect of Gilded Age, however, is that the unnamed narrator is a married, pregnant woman. As Ellie’s oldest friend, she acts as her foil, highlighting the two extremes of promiscuous debauchery and submissive domesticity.

The only problem with this dichotomy though is that it feels out of place in this setting. Lily Bart lived in a world which made it very difficult for a woman to climb the social ladder without marrying, and her dependence on her aunt’s inheritance spurred a believable downward spiral into poverty.

On the other hand, Ellie is a grade-A hot mess who foolishly signed away her divorce settlement and refuses to keep a job like everyone else. Lily, despite her many mistakes, was more of a victim of her circumstances, whereas Ellie, fueled by her addictive personality, promptly rejects the idea of joining the working class and stomps around without regard to others.

The best example of this disregard is Ellie’s penchant for other women’s husbands. I couldn’t fathom why, in 2012 when you don’t even need a man to achieve economic and social status in America, Ellie would degrade herself by chasing those who are already taken or pick through the bargain bin of unworthy suitors?

And while I understand McMillan’s choice of narrator as the fly on the wall witnessing Ellie’s doom, I would have appreciated more character development on her motivations. It would have flushed out the story’s details better, as well as provided more insight to her actions.

Ultimately, this tale ended up reading more like a Midwestern episode of “Gossip Girl” (no insult to the show intended!) than a powerful critique of one of literature’s most renowned novels. McMillan’s characters were too callous and hypocritical without all of the multifaceted nuances of Wharton’s, making all the gender double-standards fall a bit flat.

Thus, Gilded Age makes a decent beach read, but stick to Wharton for true societal commentary. In fact, after reading this novel, I wish that I could have rated The House of Mirth higher. Sometimes you need to read a sub-par adaptation in order to really appreciate the original.

The House of Mirth (Book Two)

Cover of "The House of Mirth (Signet Clas...

Cover of The House of Mirth (Signet Classics)

Rating: 3 out of 5

I’ve finally finished my 25th book of the year! I’m so happy to reach my 2012 reading goal, as well as cross another novel off my “5 Classics I Really Want to Read” list (which leaves Anna Karenina and Catch-22 for next year). I posted my review of the first half of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, so today I’ll offer my thoughts on Book Two:

Book One left off with Lily Bart slipping down the social ladder due to her increasing debt and failed attempts of nabbing a husband. Book Two begins with a cruise around the Mediterranean, where Lily joins the Dorsets and Ned Silverton. This is all the master plan of Bertha Dorset, who wishes for Lily to keep her husband George distracted while she pursues Ned.

When Bertha humiliates Lily by kicking her abruptly off the yacht for allegedly having an affair with George, Lily’s reputation is ruined. Her ego becomes even more bruised when her aunt dies, leaving her a fraction of what she originally was to inherit. Facing a life of poverty, Lily desperately seeks salvation by assimilating into a new social circle and revisiting suitors she previously snubbed.

Eventually, Lily finds herself cast aside into the working class, suffering from financial trouble and emotional turmoil. Her attitude that she was more superior to less beautiful women and less promising men backfires as people of lower rank surpass her, gaining prosperity and happiness where she could not. And although the ending is ambiguous, the reader learns that Lily’s fate is as much due to her own follies as the elite’s oppressive and alienating conventions.

Unlike other female protagonists created by Austen or Chopin, Lily is characterized as a woman who realizes much too late the consequences of believing that she could always do better and marry richer. When your motive is not directed by personal happiness, tragedy is bound to ensue, and Wharton paints that harsh reality. The House of Mirth is obviously titled ironically, because it’s not some fairy tale where a knight rides in to rescue the damsel in distress.

Rather, it’s an apt depiction of social Darwinism, where only the most handsome, charming, wealthy, and powerful individuals survive. For females of the human species, according to authors of this time period, marriage is the key to successful social mobility–another way of looking at cultural “evolution,” one might say.

There’s so much more to this story in regards to themes, motifs, and symbols, so I recommend it to someone who is a fan of the “fallen woman” genre. However, for those who are new to experiencing these types of classics, I believe that The Age of Innocence, The Awakening, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights portray the battle between love and money just as well, but also offer a more emotionally investing read because of their characters.

I’ll be making a nice transition into next year, since my first novel in 2013 will be a modern adaptation of The House of Mirth, called Gilded Age by Claire McMillan. How will Wharton’s tale play out over 100 years later? I’ll have to read and see!

Favorite Quote: 

Lily: “That’s unjust, I think, because, as I understand it, one of the conditions of citizenship is not to think too much about money, and the only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it.” 

Selden: “You might as well say that the only way not to think about air is to have enough to breathe. That is true enough in a sense; but your lungs are thinking about the air, if you are not. And so it is with your rich people–they may not be thinking of money, but they’re breathing it all the while; take them into another element and see how they squirm and gasp!”

The House of Mirth: Book One

Cover of "The House of Mirth (Signet Clas...

Cover of The House of Mirth (Signet Classics)

Earlier this week, one of my favorite television shows, “Gossip Girl,” ended after six seasons. The program, which spotlighted the lives of New York City’s social elite, was influenced heavily by Edith Wharton’s work. The characters once reenacted The Age of Innocence in a school play, and one couple in the show, Lily and Bart Bass, were named after the protagonist of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart.

Wharton was a perfect inspiration for the teen TV hit, since she grew up among the power-players. As I’ve stated in my review of The Age of Innocence, her family originated the saying “keeping up with the Joneses.” This Pulitzer Prize-winning author became the voice of the wealthiest Americans of the early 20th century.

The House of Mirth (1905) begins with Lily Bart, a single woman in her late 20s, suffering from gambling debt. Raised by a father who experienced financial ruin and a mother who resented him for their “dingy” lifestyle, Lily is a on a mission to find a rich husband.

Lily knows just how beautiful she is, so she decides to work her feminine charms on multiple prospects. There’s Percy Gryce, a well-to-do but dull bachelor; Gus Trenor, a married man who helps with Lily’s investments; and Lawrence Selden, a man with passion instead of a fortune.

Book One does an excellent job of introducing the many characters, with plenty of details about their family backgrounds, financial situations, and style of dress. Fitting into this elite world proves increasingly more difficult, given that every little mistake is noted and gossiped around town at lightning speed. Lily’s confidence in scaling the social ladder fluctuates every day, depending on whether she garners male attention and a steady income.

On one hand, you want Lily to achieve happiness, but on the other, you have to shake your head at her foolish methods. Her vanity gives her a sense of entitlement, and her penchant for flirting with men for money without acknowledging the danger of that exchange gets her into even more trouble.

I’m a sucker for ‘fallen woman’ stories which highlight the battle between love and money, but as I’m halfway through this novel, I must say that although The House of Mirth is a well-written critique of New York’s upper class, it doesn’t hold up against The Age of Innocence. There’s enough drama and backstabbing in this literary soap opera, but so far it lacks the romance as seen between Newland and Ellen.

Lily reminds me of Madame Bovary, in the sense that both women play a large role in their respective demises. Even though the novels don’t have the fast-paced action many modern readers require, I love the social commentary because I feel that much of it is still relevant today. We are often just as concerned with reputation as these characters of 100 years ago. And as much as we’d like to think we choose significant others out of love, finances are still important in making and maintaining marriages.

I’m looking forward to finishing my last book of the year, but if I’m going to meet my goal, I better stop blogging and start reading Book Two! Keep an eye out for my review, and my recap of the 25 novels I read in 2012!

Masterpiece Monday: 5 Classics I Really Want to Read

So if you’re like me, for some reason (boredom, intrigue, shame over your reality show obsessions like “America’s Next Top Model”), you’ve Googled “best books of all time.” I love reading the classics, and every now and then I like to spice up my reading with some intellect. Usually after a string of chick-lit novels, I’m craving a challenge.

Right now I’m enjoying Francesca Segal’s The Innocents, but often find myself feeling nostalgic for its inspiration: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. This, of course, makes me look forward to reading another Wharton novel waiting for me on my bookshelf: The House of Mirth.

Thus, I thought that I would share with you my list of the five classics that I really want to read soon, starting with The House of Mirth.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905): The title is derived from Ecclesiastes 7:4, which states, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” That little tidbit of info alone tells me that this story is going to be dramatically tragic, and hopefully in the best possible way. When it comes to the struggles of upper-class women in the Gilded Age, Wharton is queen, and I am her humble reading servant.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877): This tale covers two goals on my reading list–experience another great ‘fallen woman’ story and finally read a Russian author. I’ve been recommended this novel by a few of you guys, and I trust your judgment. Plus, I seriously can’t get enough of 19th-century women pushing the boundaries of femininity and morality. It’s like literary crack to me!

Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945): This is a story which I already know a lot about, since I watched the film adaptation in my high school European History class, and I routinely reference it as an example of allegory to my students. And frankly, I’m tired of mentioning a book that I still haven’t actually read. I fell head over heels in love with 1984, so there’s little chance that I’ll dislike Animal Farm. Why I continue to put off good reading, I’ll never know!

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961): I feel that if you’re going to use “catch-22” regularly in conversation, you might as well read the book which originated the term. I don’t actively seek out war stories, but it sounds like Catch-22 is much more than that. I’m a big fan of satire and anything chock-full of mentally stimulating themes and allusions, so I’m pretty sure this fits the bill.

The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925): I already love Kafka after reading his amazing shorter works, such as “A Hunger Artist” and “The Metamorphosis.” His writing is unique: bizarre, existential, and humorously morbid. Even though he died before he could finish writing it, I don’t want to die before I can finish reading it!

So what are the classics that you haven’t gotten around to yet, but you definitely want to read? Share your picks, and offer your opinions on mine!

And check back next week, because I’ll be discussing the five classics that I NEVER want to read. Any guesses???

Vote for my 20th (and possibly last) book of the year!

Ok readers, I have a favor to ask of you! I’ve set a goal for myself that I will read 20 books this year. Actually, this goal wasn’t intended, but looking at my reading pace a few months ago, I figured 20 would be a nice, achievable number (I’m not including any non-fiction I’ve read this year). Many of you probably read 20 books in a month, but alas I have sacrificed most of my potential reading time to grad school.

Anyways, I’m currently reading my 19th novel, A Desirable Residence by Madeleine Wickham (aka Sophie Kinsella), which is a pleasant piece of chick-lit after my run of dsytopian classics. And now I’d like YOU to vote for my 20th book of the year! (Considering how busy I am writing my final paper and preparing for the holidays, it’s quite possible that it might even be my last book of 2011! *cue ominous music* DUN DUN DUN!!!

Here’s your choices:

  1. The Trial by Franz Kafka
  2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  3. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  4. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  5. Summer and the City by Candace Bushnell

So let me know which one I should read and why…My fate is now in your hands!

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving break, and–of course–thanks for reading!

Love, Book Club Babe

So I went on a book bender this week…

Not pictured: Madame Bovary. I'm reading it, duh!

Hello, my name is Book Club Babe, and I’m a book addict. In a last ditch attempt to covet as many books as possible, I bought ten books this week–a personal record, I think. But I always fall back on the same justifications: There was an insane sale, and I need them!

So here’s the breakdown: (TOTAL = $31.35):

  1. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  2. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  4. 1984 by George Orwell
Borders (TOTAL = $15.07):
  1. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  2. Selected Tales by Edgar Allan Poe
  3. A Desirable Residence by Madeleine Wickham
Fresno Country Library Book Sale (TOTAL = $1!!!):
  1. The Awakening and Selected Short Fiction by Kate Chopin
  2. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  3. Art of Love by Ovid (with original Latin!)
GRAND TOTAL: 10 books for $47.42!!!
          I’m currently reading Madame Bovary, but I’ve already read the books I got at the library book sale–they’re just for my personal collection. I’d also like to note that all but one are literary classics, so it’s, you know, intellectual splurging. I know it will probably take me all year and then some to finish my new books, but what can I say? There was an insane sale, and I need them!
          PS: Happy 13th Birthday to my black Labrador Bubba! I love you more than books!!!