The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Lily Bart is a well-born but impoverished young woman, trying desperately to maintain her footing in the New York elite society, where money talks louder than just about anything. She relies on her rich friends for everything, and, at 29, has let a few too many “decent” proposals pass her by – and now she is doing everything she can to find a husband who can give her what she wants: wealth, status, a permanent place in the society she has grown up with. Unfortunately her high standards and hesitance about marrying without love tip her into a downward spiral that ultimately ends in tragedy.
“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Ecclesiastes 7:4
Wharton took the title of her book from the above verse, and it says a lot about her perspective of New York high society. Lily Bart is a “cog in the great machine called life,” useless once her part in it is played out. I feel that there is so much to learn in these pages; the story of Lily’s fall is engrossing, infuriating, tantalizing. We understand her because we *are* her. How do our choices affect the course of our lives? What matters most? These are the questions we all must ask.
I remember really hating Lily the first time I read this book – hating her for the choices she made, for how she blindly hurt the ones who cared for her – but this time I just pitied her. Though she made foolish choices, in the moment they made sense to her. Selfish, yes. Evil, no. Ultimately, this book is beautifully and masterfully written, revealing the cracks in human nature when afflicted with shame.
If you spent the entire time reading this book just WISHING Lily wouldn’t be so daft and would make better decisions for her life, read Wharton’s Glimpses of the Moon. She wrote it as a sort of experiment – what if two people in the same social situations as Lily and Selden were to actually make the choice to love each other in spite of it all? A great read to follow HoM.