Saturday, August 7, 2010

Summer by Edith Wharton

This book was a bit of a bummer.  Summer has been on my to-read shelf for several years (I bought this edition specially because I loved the cover; the original painting is at the Smithsonian), but other books kept shoving out of its place in line.  But lately I've been sneaky and now I only nominate books for my face to face discussion groups if they are sitting on my to-read shelf.  Basically, I want to force other people to read what I want. Anyhow, Wendy, the librarian who coordinates the group, appropriately chose this for our August read, and we had a great discussion this week.

Summer is the tenth novel I've read by Edith Wharton, and I must say I was a little disappointed. I've been a huge Wharton fan since I read House of Mirth several years ago, but somehow this book just didn't do it for me.  I was so hoping I'd love it as much as Ethan Frome, but it was not to be.

I should back up and include a quick synopsis here:  Published in 1917, this is the story of Charity Royall, a 17 year old girl living in a small town in western Massachusetts, probably near the Berkshires.  Charity is the foster child of Mr. Royall, a respected lawyer in the town.  He's now a widower and he and Charity have something of an awkward relationship.  Meanwhile, a young architect from Boston, Lucius (note the similarity to the name Lucifer!) has come to town to study some of the old houses, and Charity falls in love with him.  This being an Edith Wharton novel, things do not bode well for Charity's romance.

Years ago, Mr. Royall brought Charity down from "the Mountain," a nearby community full of rogues and lawless folks, to be brought up in a better place.  However, Charity isn't particularly grateful.  She's been brought up her entire life knowing she somehow isn't as good as everyone else because of her parents and where she came from, and she's pretty resentful.  She doesn't have much education or interest in intellectual pursuits.  I should have known Charity was going to annoy me from the very beginning -- when the story begin she's been skiving off her job at the library, and she has absolutely no interest in reading what's in "those dusty old books." !!!  I should have just shut the book aside right then and there, and just admired the pretty picture on the cover.  But I persevered.

Sadly, I didn't like Charity much more by the end of the book, but I did feel sorry for her situation.  Once again, Wharton focused on how few choices women had in the early 20th century, and the double standards women to which women are held.  I think I would have liked this book a lot more if Charity had been a more sympathetic character.  In a way I pitied her because she's really just a teenager and made a lot of bad choices, plus teenagers tend to be pretty self-centered.  However, she doesn't really show any kindness or sensitivity to anyone other than Lucius, and she's very attracted to him, so she has ulterior motives.

Wharton described this book as her "hot Ethan," comparing it to Ethan Frome, one of her most famous works, and one of my favorites.  However, I was so much more sympathetic to Ethan -- he had far more redeeming qualities than Charity.  He didn't want to hurt anybody, but he was trapped in an unhappy life and a miserable marriage.  He'd always wanted an education and couldn't get it because of his obligations.  Charity, on the other hand, has no interest in improving herself, even though she seems fairly bright.  We did have an interesting discussion about whether she has unselfish or selfish motives at the end.  It is possible Charity made a good decision at the end, the best possible decision given her situation, but I just thought it was sad.  Some of Wharton's books are beautiful and tragic, but this one just made me depressed.  Still, I'm glad I read it.

Other reviews of Summer by Edith Wharton:
If you've reviewed this book and would like me to link to your blog, please leave a comment and I'll add a link. 

10 comments:

  1. Hm, if even an Edith Wharton fan was disappointed by this one, maybe I ought to try her again, just one more time...

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  2. Summer is near the top of my tbr pile. I'm hoping to fit it in before beginning Bleak House. It's pretty short, so there's hope...

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  3. Amanda -- I think I was just disappointed because I didn't like a single one of the characters. I felt sorry for Charity but I really didn't like her.

    JoAnn -- it's a really quick read. You could also read it in between chapters of Bleak House if you don't get to it. They're very different so it might be a nice change, if you don't mind reading two books at the same time.

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  4. I think it's impossible to enjoy a book if you really don't like any of the characters. As you say it's a quick read I'll still give it a go at some point just so I know that I've read them all, eventually.

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  5. Well, I guess every author is going to have their not so good books. The cover is lovely though!

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  6. This is on my TBR shelf for this summer too. Sorry to hear it's not up to Ethan, which I rather like, despite its melancholy. It's definitely harder to like a book when the main character is unsympathetic. I'll still read it, but I shall brace myself :)

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  7. Jenners -- I love the cover too. The artist is Thomas Wilmer DeWing, an American Impressionist. The Smithsonian has several of his paintings and they're just beautiful.

    Jane -- It was a pretty easy read, and fast, but I just didn't fall in love with it like Ethan. It's so odd that I love that book (and House of Mirth) -- they're both so sad. I guess it's because I like Ethan and Lily so much more than Charity. It's still good, and worth comparing to EF -- and there's a little tiny mention of Starkfield which I liked.

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  8. I still haven't read anything by Edith Wharton but I hope to rectify that soon! I don't think I'll start with this one though, since you found it disappointing.

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  9. Helen -- my first Wharton was The Age of Innocence which I found rather slow. Her short stories are wonderful and a good place to start. Roman Fever is a good collection. My two favorites are Ethan Frome and House of Mirth.

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  10. Your post makes me wonder what I've been missing out on... My only experience with Wharton is Summer, and I found it so disheartening that I never really gave Wharton another chance. I've had a copy of the Age of Innocence on the shelf for a while, so I may give it a try after all this time.

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