The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton is perhaps most well known for her novella Ethan Frome, but here in The Company of Books we urge The House of Mirth on anyone who breathes the word ‘classic’. The story of Lily Bart, 29 and still unmarried though beautiful and possessed of charm and wit (alas, however, unpossessed of a fortune) this novel exemplifies what what is meant by the expression ‘biting satire’. Mixing in a society where position and appearance are all that matter, Lily struggles to maintain her footing, and we watch as she makes a series of wrong decisions, sometimes for the right reasons, and suffers the escalating consequences. I once saw an online review of this where the reader rather resentfully complained about the misleading nature of the title: ‘There was no mirth in it at all’. The full quotation, however, comes from the Bible: ‘The heart of fools is in the house of mirth’ – which alters expectations somewhat. It is not a joyful read, but this is a book that stays with you, partly for the story itself, but partly too because it really does pull no punches about the vacuousness and cruelty of the society it depicts.