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December 17, 2009



I became interested in Edith Wharton's books while a student at Erasmus Hall High School. The required novel for one of my English classes was Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. But no one in my class wanted to read it and our teacher, Mrs. Julia Ashley, did not want to teach it. Instead she assigned Ethan Frome. It was a much shorter work so all of us were pleased. It was an engaging story and an edgy one -- cousins in love -- and the details were vivid. I liked the idea that the couple took comfort from eating pickles and doughnuts, an unusual combination. (Two decades later my high-school-aged nephew had been reading this section of EF the night before I told him about my recollection of it.)
My favorite books by Wharton (I should be calling her Mrs. Wharton!) are The House of Mirth, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence. I also liked the short work called Bunner Sisters, a tale of the working poor focusing on two sisters who own a notions shop, as well as her unfinished The Buccaneers, "completed" by another author.
I particularly liked The Reef, the most Jamesean of EW's novels, with its long prologue that was almost certainly at one time a free-standing short story that Wharton chose to incorporate into her idea for the novel. The Custom of the Country also interested me since it was her funniest novel and she was an author not known for her sense of humor.
A few years ago I read Twilight Sleep, one of her novels of the early 1920s. I enjoyed it but was shocked when I came across a one-word racial epithet in the book. There was no reason I could ascertain for EW's inclusion of that word -- except as a deliberate expression of anger and revulsion on her part. It could have been edited out without impacting the book, but it was not and that clearly was EW's choice.
A couple of weeks ago at The Strand I bought a nice trade paperback copy of Glimpses of the Moon, another novel of the early 1920s period. I look forward to reading that one too.

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