I had to read Edith Wharton’s dead depressing novella Ethan Frome in high school and, like most of my English class, hated it. That put me off Wharton until a few months ago, when (with some trepidation) I purchased and tried The Age of Innocence, which I absolutely loved. Amazing how some time, a little growing up, and a different premise can change your opinion about an author! So over winter break, I bought two more of her books at my local used bookstore, The Glimpses of the Moon and Summer. The latter promises to be similar to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and I can’t wait to dive into it. I’ve just finished the former and enjoyed it immensely.
I can’t say that I liked The Glimpses of the Moon (1922) quite as much as The Age of Innocence, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. It was a lighthearted and engaging romp, and only toward the end when some tension built did I feel any anxiety as a reader. It was lighter and easier than Age of Innocence, but that also means it won’t stick with me in the same way. Glimpses of the Moon has Wharton’s trademark wit, social satire, and romantic tragedy, but on less grand a scale. It would be a great introduction to Wharton, if you or a friend have never read any of her novels and were looking for a recommendation that was less difficult, dark, and depressing than her more famous books.
Susy Branch and Nick Lansing move in a fashionable and affluent circle, but are poor themselves, meaning that they are perpetual hangers-on to their wealthier friends. They’ve grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, filled with beauty and excess, but don’t have the means to maintain it themselves. So, when their unexpectedly deep friendship is threatened by the displeasure of one of Susy’s wealthy friends, who has her eye on Nick, the two hatch a plan: they’ll marry and spend a year mooching off their friends, who will undoubtedly offer large monetary gifts and houses to stay in. A full year of honeymooning. And their pact states that if either one meets someone who can advance them socially and financially, the other won’t stand in the way. After all, in their society, it’s common enough for new engagements to be announced before the divorce is even finalized! Susy and Nick plan to help each other for a while, then go their separate ways, always maneuvering up the social scale toward greater wealth and independence.
The trouble is, marriage changes a person, and Susy and Nick’s friendship is deep and real from the beginning. They aren’t actually equipped to intersect their lives for a while and then break off to go in separate directions. Their close contact and shared hopes and dreams changes them both, and they suddenly realize that the personal sacrifices required to stay in the good graces of their wealthy friends might be more than they can accept. And yet, as Susy muses, perhaps “to attain moral freedom they must both be above material cares…” (177). To make matters more complicated, each has a wealthy admirer, and a dissolution of Susy and Nick’s marriage would open the possibility that neither would have to worry about money again. The book follows their struggles to decide who they will become, what they’re willing to do to achieve their goals, and what lifestyle they truly want. Individually, they strive for a happiness as elusive as the moon they occasionally glimpse in their most contented moments together, always knowing but unable to admit that their future happiness depends on the other.