Born in 1862, Wharton escaped the suffocating fate of the well-born female, traveled adventurously in Europe and eventually settled in France. After tentative beginnings, she developed a forceful literary professionalism and thrived in a luminous society. Her life was fed by nonliterary enthusiasms as well: her fabled houses and gardens and the culture of the Old World, which she never tired of absorbing. Yet intimacy eluded her.
With profound empathy and insight, Lee brilliantly interweaves Wharton's life with the evolution of her writing, the full scope of which shows her to be far more daring than her stereotype as lapidarian chronicler of the Gilded Age. In its revelation of both the woman and the writer, Edith Wharton is a landmark biography.
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©2007 Hermione Lee; (P)2007 Random House, Inc. Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc.
"Lee's tremendous biography of one of the most important American writers rises to landmark status." (Booklist)
"One might think that R.W.B. Lewis' excellent 1975 biography had precluded the need for another book about Edith Wharton. Not so. Reading Lee's superb new biography is akin to comparing a fine watercolor sketch to a vivid masterpiece." (Publishers Weekly)
that Wharton's life would make such a snoozer? Sure, I knew she had roots in New York society; but I had no idea she was a Francophiliac snob, a racist, and an antisemite. I've enjoyed her novels over the years, and I had looked forward to learning more about her from this book. Unfortunately, what I learned made me dislike her. The book is unevenly paced, flying across Wharton's family history, childhood, and early married years, then spending what seemed like ages on her gardening and French pretentions. Most irritating were the extended passages from the journals she kept while in France--read in French, without translations. My advice is to read the Wharton classics and skip the bio.
Edith Wharton admirers will enjoy this biography. My only regret is history of her greatest novels were overshadowed by gardening plans, relationships with architects/designers and her war work. These are all part of her make-up but not what make her a dynamic and vital writer of the human condition as it thwarts itself against class and station. I was looking forward to a feast and was moderately happy with a tasty sandwich.
As an abridgment this isn't bad, but other reviewers have complained that this version focuses on gardens instead of Wharton's works. That's true, but it seems to have been a conscious decision to give a more rounded picture of Wharton than another retelling of Ethan Frome might have done. Lee's biography is huge (800+ pages) but well worth reading in full fpr those whose interest is piqued by this version.
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