Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review: Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee

June has turned out to be a pretty crap month as far as reading and even relaxing is concerned.  I know, I know, I know.  When you've traveled for fun, no one pities you in the slightest, but I'm just saying that this has been the craziest, on the go month for being a break!  One of my big goals, every summer, is to read books that will help me prep more for my AP classes.  I haven't done very well in that regard, but I did recently read most of Hermione Lee's large biography, Edith Wharton.  Amazing and dense is the easiest review to write, but I'll try to explain a bit better than that!

Review:  In short, Lee's biography is more than just a book about the famous author Edith Wharton.  In this densely written book, we learn about the culture of turn of the century, upper-class society in New York City.  We learn about gardens and landscaping in the United States in comparison to Italy and other European countries.  We learn about little lap dogs, and their popularity way before the likes of Paris Hilton started toting them around.  We learn of the ever sophisticated, cultural center that was Paris, as the escape for artists in all walks of life.  We learn that writing reflects the pain of one's life so directly, that the mental anguish or non-disclosure of such pain can eek out into the words on the page whether the writer want them to or not.  For Edith Wharton, the complexities of her life were shown in all of these lessons and a million more. 

I can't really, adequately review  a book of this nature without directing more of my thoughts around how the book was written.  In a pretty weighty, yet engaging academic voice, Hermione Lee takes a linear approach to Edith Wharton's life, in a very non-linear way.  Although she starts with her early childhood and marriage, she also bounces around to show how things that occurred in her life are reflected and influence events later on.  This moving backward and forward through Wharton's life leaves the chapters in the biography feeling more like individual academic essays that could be lifted from the book for research.  I would think that unless you are really, really interested in Wharton's life, that I would only pick up this hefty book for individual research or curiosity.   This is not easy reading, by any means, but it is richly satisfying and made me appreciate the artist's life much more.  For college students or academics, Lee's book would be a brilliant resource that I can heartily recommend.  Give yourself plenty of time to peruse, because you'll need it!

*FTC Disclosure:  Review is based on a library copy of the book.


  1. Hermione Lee does write fat books, doesn't she? Having said that, though, I've never found her boring. Her biography of Virginia Wolff, for instance, was wonderful. I always keep an eye out for her books in book sales - couldn't possibly finish one in time if I borrowed it from a library.

  2. Barbara--She's definitely not boring, that's for sure! I really enjoyed this one, even though it took so much time to really move through the different sections.