"If children don't look after each other, who's going to do it for them? You can't expect parents to, when they don't know how to look after themselves."
This quote basically sums up the entire novel in two lines. Middle-aged bachelor Martin Boyne is an engineer traveling by ship from Algeria around Italy and up the Adriatic to Venice. Before the ship leaves port, he reflects that there's nobody interesting on bored, and is convinced he will be bored for the entire two-week journey. Soon it becomes apparent that nothing could be further from the truth, when he meets a party of seven children on board who will change his life.
The Wheater children are a collection of siblings, half-siblings, and step-siblings, headed by Judith, aged 15 and wise beyond her years. The pack also includes baby Chipstone, their father's favorite; the clever yet delicate Terry, the eldest son; his twin sister Blanca; a half-sister Zinnie; and the two step-siblings, nicknamed Bun and Beechy. The Wheater parents are old acquaintances of Boyne from his youth, so naturally he takes an interest. Apparently, Cliffe and Joyce Wheater had the oldest three children then divorced, whereupon Cliffe fathered Zinnie with an actress. Meanwhile, Joyce married an Italian whereby she acquired two step-children, Bun and Beechy. Eventually, the Wheaters split with their respective spouses and remarried, producing baby Chip. Got all that?
Martin first meets the children when he discovers young Terry, aged about 11, will be sharing his cabin; meanwhile Joyce is assigned the adjacent deck chair. He gets to know the children and their governess during the voyage and is swept into the delightful chaos of their lives. When they arrive in Venice he spends a few days trying to help find a suitable tutor for Terry, and gets the full picture of their family dynamic when they meet up with their parents.
The adult Wheaters are essentially shallow, wealthy Americans living abroad who flit from one luxurious resort to another, dragging their children along. They're so self-absorbed they can't see how much damage they're doing to their own children. Meanwhile, it's the eldest, Judith, who has taken on the role of mother and protector, and she is determined to keep all the children together, despite the disappearance and reappearance of absent parents, step-parents, and potential step-parents, as Cliffe and Joyce seem to be constantly on the verge of affairs, breakups, and reconciliations.
After leaving the Wheaters in Venice, Martin goes up to the Italian Alps, where he meets up with an old flame, Mrs. Sellars, who is recently widowed after an unhappy marriage. He's hoping to take their long-distance romance to the next level when the reappearance of the Wheater children interrupt their domestic bliss. Martin has to decide whether his loyalties lie with Mrs. Sellars or with this boisterous brood of children who really need a responsible adult in their lives. Also, it becomes apparent that Martin's feelings for young Judith may be not just fatherly.
Published in 1928, this was a best-seller at the time, though it's now one of Wharton's lesser-read novels (less than 700 ratings on Goodreads, compared to more than 125,000 for The Age of Innocence and nearly 100,000 for Ethan Frome). I really enjoyed it -- it's a quick read and I finished it in only three days. I found the plot interesting and the characters engaging and well-developed, and parts of it are quite funny -- in particular, there's a chapter when Martin is trying to negotiate with the Wheater parents to keep the children together permanently. The parents keep putting off the discussion because they're far too busy amusing themselves with their society friends, and when they do meet, they're constantly interrupted by all the ex-spouses, step-parents and hangers-on trying to put their two cents in. Cliffe and Joyce Wheater are so easily distracted by their social calendar they seem less mature than 15-year-old Judith. Edith Wharton spent much of her life as a wealthy expat so I'm sure she had plenty of first-hand knowledge of this sort of shallow, wealthy American living abroad.
If you've ever read anything by Wharton, you know that her books rarely have happy endings. This book isn't as tragic as most of them, but it is still ultimately rather sad, though there are many lighthearted moments. The only thing I didn't like about the book was Martin's relationship with Judith -- he's in his mid-forties and Judith is only 15. I realize this book was published 90 years ago and it wasn't uncommon for middle-aged men to marry very young women, but it made me uncomfortable -- not as bad as Lolita, but more uncomfortable than Emma.
I'm very glad to have finally read it -- I've owned a copy since about 2010. I started reading Wharton more than 10 years ago and have since completed most of her novels and short stories, and I've enjoyed nearly all of them. I still have two unread on my shelves, Hudson River Bracketed and The Fruit of the Tree (which are even more obscure than The Children); plus a massive biography of Wharton by Hermione Lee which I'm planning to read soon for the TBR Pile Challenge -- it's more than 700 pages long so it's rather daunting.