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Walt Disney Co. I had run out of reading matter, so I entered, hopefully. How to cheer myself up? I'd been reading a grim diet of the formidable Carlos Fuentes who was treated like royalty at the Mexican festival and I needed something more cheering. A reliable classic, a reassuring costume drama might do the trick. Edith Wharton was an inspired choice.
As soon as I opened the novel I knew I was in safe hands.
The airline could delay and insult me, the storms could batter me, but I was secure, enthralled by the fortunes of one of the most appalling and fascinating heroines ever created. Undine can, and she does. She dares, risks, exceeds, rises, falls, and rises again. She is unstoppable. She is a force of nature. Her energy is dreadful, her beauty is fatal. She is a fortune-seeker from the Midwest, upwardly mobile, ignorant but quick to learn, and ambitious not for riches her humble and devoted father has made money and spent lavishly upon her but for admiration and social glory.
The Custom of the Country Background
We watch, as she glitters and ascends, through a rapidly changing society that seems forced to accommodate her longings and bend to her will. Will she ever meet an obstacle to her rapacious desires? You have to read on, literally to the last line, to find out.
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Her physical presence in the novel is extraordinarily powerful. With her "black brows, her reddish-tawny hair and the pure red and white of her complexion", she attracts attention wherever she appears - and she appears as much as possible and dresses as expensively as she can. No wonder the society painter Popple, famous like John Singer Sargent as the only man who could "do pearls" and realise dress fabrics, is eager to paint her portrait.
The monotonous predictability of her shifting attitudes has some savage, Nabokovian touches of self-parody.
The Custom of the Country
The last scene, where Undine Spragg holds the triumphant ball—at which she is already starting to find her new husband unsatisfactory—is a perfect send-up since she has re- married for money the man she married for selfish reasons years ago. He is now doing roughly the same thing. It all works out perfectly! I found the novel fascinating. Thanks for the reviews and comments. I read it after the book, which I loved, and I enjoyed reading them very much.
The Custom of the Country - Broadview Press
Her beauty is the mechamism by which she can operate, and she must have had the sex appeal of all the 50s Hollywoold stars combined to captivate such a range of men — and yet she is curiously sexless and motivated by a passion for admiration, versus passion per se. You would be horrified if she were to marry in to your family, knowing she destroys all she encounters in order to satisfy her vain and selfish motivations, but you are desperate to know what she is going to do next.
She is a force of nature and Wharton acheives the impossible — to make us want to engage with such an unremitting and possibly evil presence. I am a huge Wharton fan, I would dearly love to ask her what motivated her desire to create such a protagonist and to ascribe such adventures to her. Wharton is also a timeless writer, I have read and reread her book at different stages of my life and always been fascinated by the fact that every time, they are fresh and reveal new aspects and angles of the human condition.
Do read this book. If only to serve as a warning when you encounter those with Undine-like qualities. Undine is just an extreme example of the type. The world is full of selfish people, men as well as women — Peter van Degen, for instance. I think Edith Wharton was satirizing a situation which almost demanded that these folk exist in plenitude. She is absolutely impenetrable and totally amoral. Yet what a convincing creation she is! One would not be surprised to meet people like this and to know that such people exist and are usually extremely successful in society. Good point, Joanna — Undine is quite sexless since she is a total narcissist.
The only thing that slightly moves her is male power, but this only for a moment. It turns out to be just another challenge that her beauty and sinister heartlessness will eventually overcome and destroy. You are commenting using your WordPress.
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