This is a Fictional Friday post, where I review a book (but it might not always be fiction)
Aren’t horrible characters amazing to read?
Someone who’s unsympathetic and generally unpleasant makes a book a much more compelling read than someone who’s pleasant or – God forbid – selfless.
The Custom of the Country‘s Undine Spragg lives up to this role, and then some.
Not only is her name one of the best names ever given to a character, but she’s greedy, self-interested, and not too intelligent.
Yet she’s a product of her society; post civil-war America, where everyone’s interested in climbing the social and economic ladder and little else. She’s a product of her parents’ over-indulgence and never having been denied anything.
Edith Wharton’s novel got strange reviews – so repulsive were the characters and content of her novel that, while no-one could deny the quality of Wharton’s style, they were more fascinated than impressed.
The Custom of the Country could be seen as a critique of marriage. She was going through a divorce while writing the novel and you can feel her bitterness at the construct of marriage and how our society treats it.
It could be seen as a critique of American and European society. The plot moves from America to Europe and has a generally Eastward movement – from Apex, the West and the end of the frontier to New York and then on to Europe. Every society has massive failings in the people it produces – whether they lead a shallow life of conspicuous money or leisure, or can’t let go of traditional values.
While she scathingly critiques modern society, she makes no movement to provide an alternative; and perhaps this is what makes the book so repulsive.
Every lifestyle Undine tries leads her unsatisfied, wanting something different. And every society she ends up in on her climb of the social ladder has a plethora of shortcomings.
Wharton ends the book on a note that tells the reader that this will only continue – adding to the sense of a fascination in the grotesque in the novel.