Hemingway and Stein. Additionally, she considered her home to be in Massachusetts, although she traveled extensively during the year. (After the war, however, she found her sympathies increasingly with France, so she all but relocated there.)
Anomalies aside, Wharton is still a poster child for American expatriates in France, and, with her somewhat unorthodox lifestyle, she fits easily alongside many of the others who forged a non-traditional path in the early 20th century.
Wharton was born to an affluent New York family, and she was one of those people who could be said to have "excellent social connections." She married young, but her husband proved to be mentally unstable, and the two eventually divorced. (I'll give Wharton credit here: she did stick it out for almost twenty years.) She began publishing her work around the turn of the century, and it met with reasonable critical respect. Wharton had the good fortune of being able to discuss the upper classes with an insider's knowledge. As a result, many of her books re-create the world of her early years, while also leveling rather concise criticism of this world. In other words, Wharton knew what the problems were, and she wasn't afraid to point them out.
She relied heavily on the use of irony; as someone who has read a number of Wharton's books, I can say that the irony often results in sad situations. I wouldn't call Wharton's works particularly "happy," but they are memorable, and the events within them tend to stick with the reader for a while. At least, they do for this reader.
In choosing the authors to feature this week, I've tended to focus on the ones I like, and Wharton is no different. More to the point, I love her novels. She has a way of putting things that resonates with me. For instance, to this day I can't forget how in The Age of Innocence she referred to those in the performing arts world of late 19th-century New York (opera singers in particular) as the "paid purveyors of rich men's pleasure." It's direct and clear, and she gets the point across. It's also permanently fused in my brain. (And every time I see photos of the wealthy people in New York, including celebrities, attending one of those art gala events, I wonder if Wharton's point still applies. That's kind of what it's all about, right? Those people pay to be seen attending a cultural event and looking like they really know something about it. I'm being harsh, but if my recent attendance at the Houston Ballet is any indication, many of the wealthy people who attend and support the arts don't really have any taste when it comes to judging the level of a performance. They just like to think they do. Which explains why the production is so expensive and the dancing so mediocre. Same thing in ballet companies in New York today. Now, I'm ranting. Sorry.)
So where to get started with Edith Wharton? Her novels are fairly well known and now represent an important part of the American reading repertoire. The Age of Innocence is one of her later novels, although it's probably her most famous. Feel free to start there, although bear in mind that the style is a bit more developed than some of her earlier novels. Other than The Age of Innocence, here are some options:
The House of Mirth -- very little mirth involved, but a fascinating story all the same about the way society could essentially cannibalize young women
Summer -- girl loses virtue and tries to find her way in the world; not my favorite, but it's memorable and very short
Ethan Frome -- save this for a day you don't need a picker-upper; no good ending here
The Custom of the Country -- Midwestern girl tries to make it in New York society; like Vanity Fair but in the Big Apple
The Touchstone -- man betrays another to find success and can't live with the guilt; learns to appreciate the power of forgiveness
The Buccaneers -- American girls try to make it in British society; mixed results
A few tidbits about Edith Wharton:
-- She was born Edith Jones, to George and Lucretia Rhinelander Jones, and her family is believed to be the source of the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses"
-- Wharton was also interested in home design and gardening, and she wrote about both. Her books The Decoration of Houses (with Ogden Codman) and Italian Villas and Their Gardens reflect these pursuits.
-- She wrote from the front lines during World War I, remembered in her articles within Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort.
-- Wharton won a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence.
-- Wharton also wrote a number of ghost stories, some of which can be found in her short story collection Tales of Men and Ghosts