Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country was originally published in 1913 and tells the story of Undine Spragg, a girl who uses her beauty and ruthlessness to attempt to ascend New York's social ladder before she moves to Paris and paves her way there.

This was my first Edith Wharton novel, my only previous experience with Wharton was the film version of The Age of Innocence at which I got quite annoyed (why didn't he go up to her apartment at the end!)

But back to The Custom of the Country. Undine Spragg is a fascinating character, she only has one ambition in life which is to get to the top of whichever society she happens to find herself in. She is so fixated on this desire that she is completely oblivious to everything else around her. In order to achieve her rise to the top she spends a lot of time trying to marry the right man. If the 'right' man turns out to be the 'wrong' man or she has gone as far as she can using her current husband, well she can always get a divorce.

Undine one is one of the most despicable and selfish characters I have ever read about. She does not have her own opinions or views but rather she adapts to the opinions of which ever social crowd she is attached to which leads to some quite witty moments in the book.

Near the beginning of the book, Undine receives her first New York dinner invitation and she then spends a good page and a half pondering how she should reply and what paper she should reply on..

"She had read in the Boudoir Chat ….that the smartest women were using the new pigeon-blood notepaper with white ink.. It was a disappointment, therefore to find that Mrs Fairford wrote on the old-fashioned white sheet. It gave Undine rather a poor opinion of Mrs Fairford's social standing".

To really demonstrate how Undine's mind works however was summed up in one line for me. Undine is in Paris when she receives frantic letters from her husband begging her to come home as the doctors bills for her sons illness was larger than expected and they cannot afford her lifestyle in Paris, after pondering “Was it her fault that she and the boy had been ill?” She comes out with this corker,

…...”and as she leaned back among the cushions disturbing thoughts were banished by the urgent necessity of deciding what dress she should wear.”

Moments like these made me chuckle but as the book went on, Undine became more and more loathsome and the people ruined or hurt in her wake (including her own little boy) became too numerous and almost became tragic.

I think the book is pointing the finger at people like her who only care for money, status and beauty, yet will always chase what they can't have, she is a caricature of those type of people. But its also a sharp look at the changing fortunes of people with money at that time.

I am reading Madame Bovary in October and I'll be interested in comparing these two women.

Would I recommend this? Yes, I found this an enjoyable read with a main character that was so despicable I couldn't look away. However if you have not read Edith Wharton before then her books The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence are more famous so you might want to start with them.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess


  1. I can't believe I never even heard of this Wharton book -- time to open my eyes apparently.

  2. I think I will like this one. I am a big fan of Wharton!

  3. I've read three Wharton books so far and not enjoyed any of them. I haven't read this one, but the comparison to Bovary makes me want to run screaming. :D

  4. Bibliophile By the Sea - I dont think it was one of her more famous ones, I enjoyed it though

    Stephanie - if you already know you like her writing then Im sure your like this one

    Amanda - why the heck did you read three of her books then! Surely you should have stopped at one, or two LOL

  5. I haven't read The Custom of the Country, but I've read Ethan Frome and several of Wharton's short stories, and I've really enjoyed them all. I'm pretty sure my library has this, so I'll be sure to check it out at some point. Thanks for the review!

  6. I loved this book. I've read the other Whartons that you mentioned (as well as Ethan Frome), and this was actually my favorite. I just couldn't believe how horrible Undine was. I honestly couldn't come up with a single redeemable characteristic for her, nor could I feel sympathy that she was somewhat shackled by circumstances (which is how I ended up feeling about Emma Bovary). She's loathsome through and through, and it was oddly compelling to see just how low she would sink.

  7. How exciting that this is your first Wharton. So many others to read and enjoy. She is one of my favorites. I couldn't stand the film of The Age of Innocence because I thought Winona Ryder was so awful in it.

  8. Wharton is my home girl and this is one of my favorites. Undine (what a name!) is such a disgusting character that you can't help but be sucked into how she treats the people around her. This is by far one of the most negative portrayals of status climbers I have come across, and very different from Wharton's other novels set in the same society rings.

    I still have to say that The House of Mirth is my favorite. :)

  9. I've just finished my first Edith Wharton too - The Age of Innocence-and I really enjoyed it although I agree that ending is so frustrating.

  10. Oh I'm glad you liked it! I thought it was so good. Undine was a nasty piece of work. Loved her!

  11. I haven't read Edith Wharton before :/ I'd probably get really irritated at Undine by the sounds of it haha. Interesting that you're looking to compare her to Madame Bovary. I just read it recently, and I became fascinated with Emma. She's probably better, I actually feel sorry for Emma but Undine sounds terrible!

  12. Zara - she is such a horrible character that it makes for an entertaining read.

    Teresa - yes just when you thought she couldnt get any worse she did. I really felt sorry for her little boy.

    Thomas - The Age of Innocence film has totally put me off that book LOL Winona was quite a big star at the time from what I remember but yeah she looks bad when sharing screen time with the legend Daniel Day Lewis.

    Allie - The House of Mirth is the one of hers I want to read next!

    Cat - I know, like WHY. I got so mad at the end of the film LOL

    Chris - She is one of my top villians in liturature - Im glad this was my first Wharton and I was surpreised how easy she is to read.

    Toni - I have no idea if the book are similar but it just struck me that they are both women who do horrible things so Ill be interested if Emma has more redeemable qualities or if I sympathise with her. Undine is just horrible.

  13. I tried reading The Age of Innocense and I struggled, so maybe this is a better place to start? I want to love Wharton, but I'm not sure if I will and that makes me not pick up her books.

  14. I really need to read something by Wharton soon - I just have to decide which of her books to begin with. This one sounds good, but I think I'll probably try one of the more famous ones first.

  15. I really enjoyed reading The Buccaneers after watching the BBC mini-series several times (that was good too).

    I recommend it - it has a real ensemble cast so there's bound to be a character you can really like, but I'm getting the idea that Wharten didn't write pretty or happy stories!

    I hadn't heard of this one but I'm interested in reading it despite the main character - or maybe because of her!

  16. irisonbooks - Wharton might just be one of those authors that you dont like. I found this one quite an easy read overall which I was surprised at.

    Helen - I like the idea of The House of Mirth which would be a good place to start?

    Shannon - if she was a good character then the book wouldnt be nearly as good LOL Ill look out for The Buccaneers so thanks for the rec.

  17. What a great blog!

    I finished The House of Mirth about two weeks ago and loved it. I've been a big fan of The Wharton since I read The Age of Innocence about ten years ago. It's still one of my fave books. I actually have this book on my TBR list, even though it's not part of my blog. I liked your review a lot. :)