2016 TBR Pile Challenge: The Custom of the Country

I did not read enough classics in 2015. I read Persuasion again, fell in love with East of Eden, The Woman in White, The Count of Monte Cristo was a 5-month endeavour, and a handful of Agatha Christies if those count.

I hope to make more of an effort classics-wise in 2016 and kicked it all off with Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, which also happened to be on my unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge list.

When I finally read The Age of Innocence, I was blown away by it. I’m not sure what it was – maybe that a woman wrote so effectively from the perspective of a man? Maybe how scandalous it actually was? I don’t know but I made it my mission to read the Novels of New York.

When I finished The House of Mirth, I cried.

I was very much looking forward to The Custom of the Country.

This one was tough, guys.

Undine Spragg is a small-town transplant in New York City, intent on making her mark. She doesn’t care much for the rules that govern the right New York society – she wants what she wants and she intends on getting it. She immediately catches the eye of Ralph Marvel, the son of one of the ‘right’ families, and he decides to marry her before she is ruined by the society he detests. She thinks he’s loaded but actually she’s married the appearance of money and that won’t do at all.

Dogging her steps are a former flame, a super shady guy called Elmer Moffat. He knew her back home, and has arrived on scene in New York making lots of money for lots of people but never really being a part of the right crowd. Undine, bored with life in New York, aims for Paris where she hangs out with some questionable people and meets a Marquise.

Her flirtation with the Marquise becomes more than than, bringing shame on her husband back home. Eventually she gets divorced and marries the Marquise but even that life isn’t what she thought it would be. She hadn’t bet on spending all year in the French countryside in a rundown, ancient chateau. Just as she chafed against the rules of New York society, so she fails to understand or embrace the rules of French society. Until she does, she will be thoroughly miserable.

I never really liked Undine. I especially disliked her father’s habit of calling her ‘Undie.’ In the end though, I did enjoy it. Undine strikes me as thoroughly modern, even if its not in a good way. She’s the kind of woman that is never quite satisfied with what she gets, even if it’s exactly what she asked for. She’s all about instant gratification but she’s very much hampered by the rules that govern her sex at the time (the book was published in 1912, I assumed the story takes place sometime around then).

Wharton continues to throw obstacles in her heroine’s way right up until the very last page and for that I will love her forever.

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20 thoughts on “2016 TBR Pile Challenge: The Custom of the Country

  1. The Custom of the Country isn’t as good as The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence…but even one of Wharton’s “lesser” works is still better than most other writers’ best. I just love the way Edith Wharton writes! So, which book of hers are you going to read next? 🙂

  2. I read The House of Mirth in university and I think I grossly discounted it. I’m not sure why – maybe it was because I was juggling so many academic books at once? I think I may have to re-read it now that my reading is more relaxed.

  3. I have Ethan Frome and meant to read it last year, but never did (the story of our [reading] lives, right?). Maybe this year…
    The instant gratification and never being satisfied with what she gets does sound very modern, but maybe it has always been around. I usually do find those types characters unlikable, but often interesting to read about.

    • I think I wish that there had been SOME redeeming quality about her. That she was a good friend whatever was going on in her own life, that she was a great mother, that she was really smart…something.
      I haven’t read Ethan Frome! So that’s another one that I still have to look forward to. Probably.
      It is the story of our reading lives. Once you cross one off the list, you had 10 more.

  4. I haven’t read any Wharton I’m ashamed to say. I need to fix that – but I don’t know after reading this review if I could get past someone being called Undie. That’s just too terrible.

    • Only her father does it but everytime I was like “UGH, NO. STOP.” Before that I thought “mmm Undine is an unusual name, kind of pretty. I wonder why no one uses it anymore?” UNDIE, that’s why.
      If you’re going to start on Wharton, and you should, start with The Age of Innocence. The House of Mirth is my favourite but you want to savour it I think.

  5. Pingback: The Unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge | The Paperback Princess

  6. Glad to hear you enjoyed it! This one is definitely my favourite Wharton novel, partly because Undine’s restless ambition is so fascinating. I like these lines from Wharton’s diary: “Satisfied! What a beggary state! Who would be satisfied with being satisfied?” She doesn’t specify the dates in the novel itself, but in a note on the manuscript she said “The story takes place between 1899 and 1906-7.” (I spent years researching the historical context for the novel and it was a real pleasure to find details like this.)

    I agree that “Undie” is awful. I do like her mother’s description of the link between her name and the word “undoolay, you know, the French for crimping.”

    I love The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence as well, and one of my other favourites is Summer (which she referred to as “the hot Ethan”).

    • Oh thanks for telling me WHEN it takes place. I wondered why there wasn’t more discussion of the state of affairs of Europe among the men. I knew you would have some good tidbits to offer!
      I’ve definitely spent some time thinking about Undine so in that respect, Wharton nailed it. I suspect that this is a book that is maybe better on a second read?
      I’m learning so much – I had no idea Ethan Frome or Summer were books at all! I’m such a Wharton novice!

      • Definitely worth rereading — but then of course I would say that! I also like The Glimpses of the Moon, which has some parallels with The House of Mirth. Oh, and The Mother’s Recompense. And her short stories, especially her ghost stories, and “The Other Two,” which (like Custom) is about ex-husbands. Can’t remember if I’ve told you about the series of blog posts I wrote in honour of the 100th anniversary of The Custom of the Country, including a piece on Wharton’s influence on Julian Fellowes and Candace Bushnell. Anyway, if you’re interested, you can find the link above the header on my website. I’m looking forward to seeing Scarlett Johansson as Undine in the upcoming tv adaptation.

  7. Pingback: 2016 TBR Pile Challenge: Half of a Yellow Sun | The Paperback Princess

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