This is a well-written, engaging classic with complex characters and psychological insight, though a depressingly predictable story. Published in 1905 and set in the wealthy New York society of the late nineteenth century, this feels in many ways like a 19th century British novel, populated by independently wealthy leisure types who spend their days attending house parties and gossiping about one another. But the protagonist, Lily Bart, stands out as a complex individual: aged 29 at the beginning of the novel and raised to a life of leisure, she doesn’t quite have the judgment or ruthlessness needed to succeed in that milieu, and the book is more or less the chronicle of her downfall.
This is an excellent book in the way you expect from a novel that has stood the test of time: Wharton has a keen eye for people and their behavior and motivations and hypocrisies; the book brings to life a particular slice of society in a particular place and time; and it is an engaging story, one I read to see what would happen next as well as for the polished style and complicated characters.
But the most interesting thing about it is the character of Lily. Even after finishing the book I can’t quite decide how to view her, and how much it is fair to condemn or excuse her. On the one hand, Lily has a massive sense of entitlement: she wants to live a life of ease without having to do anything to earn it. On the other hand, she lives her life surrounded by people who do exactly that, who inherited or married into wealth and pass their days showing it off. And by the standards of her society, Lily is more “worthy” than many, being naturally beautiful and socially skilled. (Amusingly, the concept of a “brilliant woman” and her “career” in this context refers to a beautiful, sophisticated woman and her social trajectory, more specifically her run as a husband-hunter.) Lily’s qualms about marrying for money a man she doesn’t actually like are sympathetic, but if she doesn’t want to live her mother’s life (her mother clearly not having cared a whit for her father as an actual person, while he was working himself to death for their sake), it’s frustrating (though believable) to not see her reconsider her mother’s insistence on luxury and social success as the measure of meaning in life. And most frustrating of all is the fact that she has so many options and opportunities to avoid her fate – and rejects all of them, because in one way or another none of them conform to her vision of what she wants herself and her life to be. In that way the story feels a bit like a Greek tragedy, where the character’s downfall is due entirely to her personality.
Yet it is a story that remains relevant today. Lily’s predicament is not so different from that of many modern folk who struggle with the sense that they are too smart or talented for the jobs or incomes available to them. In answer, Lily’s story is a warning that the world is largely indifferent to inherent worthiness; you still have to actually take the opportunities that are offered and work for what you want, not just expect success to fall into your lap.
So it is a book whose themes have outlasted the society that gave birth to it, and one that made me think. My biggest criticism of the novel is that for me it was an illustration of the perils of writing tragedy; because it was clear what would happen to Lily, to an extent I disengaged emotionally from her story. And it's worth noting that there is some anti-Semitism here, in the form of stereotypes and generalizations. But overall it’s an excellent book and one that I would recommend.