Edith Wharton’s novel The Glimpses of the Moon was an immensely satisfying read; it’s a good story that moves along at just the right pace, and it offers much to think about: it deals with love and marriage, money and society, ambition, work, children, novel-writing, travel, class, isolation, loneliness, and probably more things that I’m not thinking about now. I don’t think the book is quite on par with The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, maybe because it is more narrow in focus than the other two and perhaps because I’m biased towards books with a tragic rather than a comic structure. But still, I felt a depth and heft to this book that I too often feel is missing in more contemporary fiction.
The novel tells the story of Susy Branch and Nick Lansing, both of whom have no money but have found ways of living comfortably in high society — they have been sponging off of friends in order to support the lifestyles to which they have been accustomed. When they meet and hit it off, they decide to marry and live as long as they can off the wedding presents they receive and the offers of houses to visit that come from their rich friends. The novel opens with the couple beginning their honeymoon at a friend’s villa on Lake Como. The catch, though, is that they have agreed to end the marriage if one or the other finds someone rich who will marry them. Their marriage is opportunistic through and through, although they are, without a doubt, quite fond of each other.
With this precarious situation at the novel’s opening, things are bound to unravel, and unravel they do. First of all, Nick and Susy discover that their intense focus on money is bound to warp their relationship. It turns out they have different ideas about what manipulation and deception, what “management” — an important term in the novel — is acceptable when it comes to securing money or a house to live in. They quarrel about whether Susy should take a box of cigars left by their friend, and this quarrel causes a rift that won’t soon heal and that hints at the even greater struggles the two of them will soon face.
This conflict is interesting because of the way it’s gendered; as a woman Susy is more vulnerable than Nick is and therefore needs a moral code that is more flexible to maintain her position. Nick has the luxury of being a little more discriminating. Wharton describes this conflict in satisfying detail, especially the way Susy regrets that she has disappointed Nick and longs to attain a higher moral standard, but at the same time fully understands the reasons for her behavior and is able to forgive herself.
From here things fall apart further; friends and their friends’ children intrude into their honeymoon bliss, jealousies flare, misunderstandings arise. Nick and Susy have much to learn, both about themselves and about the world they live in. They eventually are faced with the demoralizing realization that the world they worked so hard to maintain their place in is ultimately frivolous and shallow. Their friends lead silly, pointless lives and are intensely selfish. They only care about Nick and Susy to the extent that they have something to gain from them.
In contrast to their wealthy but frivolous friends are the Fulmers, a family of struggling artists and many children who lead honest lives but have no money. Susy and Nick are horrified by these people, by their obliviousness to fashion and their unsophisticated happiness. But they are innocent and relatively unspoiled by the idleness and silliness of the other characters (at least at first). Eventually Susy and Nick will learn something from these people; their changing attitude towards the Fulmers will mark changes within themselves.
The novel’s structure is satisfying too (although perhaps a trifle too neat? I enjoy this kind of neatness though). I’m going to be discussing plot events from later in the novel, so take care — after Nick and Susy split they each find another love interest and another family to take care of them, and each of them have lessons to learn about themselves and about each other. Only after they have learned these lessons apart from one another are they able to find a way to come together again. I found the ending plot twists exciting, although a tad unrealistic, but I was willing to get over this for the sake of the pleasure the ending brought.
Overall, what a satisfying book this is! Check out the Slaves of Golconda site for other posts and discussion.
7 responses to “The Glimpses of the Moon”
I want to meet the Fulmers.
Sounds wonderful from your description and like something maybe I ought to try right about now, as I could use some good old-fashioned fiction. But right now, I’ve got other things to turn to, like lots of nonfiction that seems to be fascinating me, so it will have to wait. Sigh!
So far I have enjoyed everything I’ve read by Wharton, this sounds like it wouldn’t be an exception. I’ll have to find a copy!
What a fantastic review, coinciding perfectly with my as of two days ago resolution to read six “classics” by the end of December – this one is in a box somewhere and I am now determined to locate it! There is quite a bit of joy in this review, I must say!
Bikkuri — hah! Sounds like a movie …
Emily — oh, yes, the familiar pull between fiction and non, between what you’ve got going now and what you could possibly read next … I know just what you mean!
Verbivore — I haven’t read anything of hers I’ve disliked either. I wasn’t really aware of all her lesser-known works, but it turns out there are quite a few of them.
Courtney — thank you! I like your comment about joy in my review … reading six classics sounds like an excellent resolution, and I hope you blog about them!
I really enjoyed this as well, but I don’t think it was quite as good as some of her other novels. I hadn’t thought of the gender aspect in that way. It was a lot easier for Nick to draw the line on how far they could take advantage. Susy seemed to agonize over it more. I think this was actually filmed in the 20s, but I imagine it’s probably impossible to try and see it now.
Thank you for your review. I like your contrast of the positions of Susy and Nick. He had a profession, if he chose to work at it, but he was satisfied to let Susy to the scheming and managing until it crossed some ethical line he had never defined for her or for himself. Then he took a high moral line.
One could take a different view: if you are going to live off other people, can you be that fussy? I think it suffers in comparison with Wharton’s other books: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2010/08/20/edith-wharton-the-glimpses-of-the-moon/