Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Book Reviews: Sheri Reynolds and Edith Wharton

Two of the latest books I've read have been Hotel of the Saints by Ursula Hegi and Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields. I'd already read other books by both of these authors, so I knew what quality of writing to expect from them (good enough to make me want to read more), and I got pretty much what I expected - so I'm not going to write anything about them here.

Two of the other latest books I've read have been A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds and The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. I had not read anything by either of these authors before, so I feel more inclined to write about them now.

I was quite impressed by A Gracious Plenty. This novel consists almost entirely of the conversations of the ghosts in a small cemetery with each other and with one living woman, who due in part to having been disfigured by severe burn scars in her childhood, rarely talks to anyone but ghosts. The only criticism I could venture to make of this novel is that I would have personally preferred it if the author didn't encourage readers to believe that ghosts are real. But that's more my atheism speaking than my English majorness; if the book is to be measured strictly in terms of objective "good writing" and not my personal preferences, it's exquisitely written and absolutely fascinating from start to finish.

I was not similarly fascinated at all by Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, though this book's failure to fascinate me was again not exactly a failure of objective "good writing" at all. Wharton seems to have undertaken a rather interesting project with this novel: it's basically a feminist novel intended for extremely misogynistic men. It attempts to gain misogynists' interest by ranting in endless detail about the evils of particular women, and sympathizing endlessly with the men who have to put up with such evil women; and then it calmly explains how the women's evilness is directly attributable to patriarchy - in particular, how when women care about absolutely nothing but spending absurdly impractical amounts of money on clothes all the time and scheming to marry the richest possible man, this is because patriarchy has assigned women to this role and deprived them of a good education in money management or opportunities to earn a good salary themselves. This seems to me a worthwhile strategy for attempting to get a message across. The problem is just that the particular woman who is the main character of this book is so extreme and unceasing in her absolute loathesomeness that by the time I was even a quarter of the way into the book, the idea of having to spend any more time in pseudo-proximity to a woman this deeply soulless by the act of continuing to read about her repulsed me utterly. I'm a person who virtually never fails to finish a book once I've started it, but this book almost beat me. I did finish it, in the end, but only by taking numerous breaks of several days to recover from the odiousness of being in that woman's fictional presence, before forcing myself to read a little more again. Will someone please promise me that Edith Wharton's other books have likable main characters? Because if I can be promised that much, I might be interested in giving another of her novels a try; but without that guarantee, I don't think I can take any more.
Tags: books
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