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Few social climbers are as surreally despicable as Edith Wharton's Undine Spragg, who doesn't care what happens to anyone else as long as she can shop and party. And "The Custom of the Country" is the perfect example of what such people do to the people around them. It's nauseating and brilliant, all at once.

Undine Spragg is a mesmerizing beauty from a tiny town, whose parents made a small-scale fortune and have moved to the glitzy world of New York. Undine wants the best of everything, more than her family can afford, but she thinks it's all worth it -- so she marries a besotted son of "old New York," but it doesn't take long for him to realize how incompatible they are.

And he doesn't realize that Undine is hiding a (then) shameful secret -- she was once married and quickly divorced from a vulgar businessman. In the present, Undine continues her quest for a life of pleasure, moving on to a French nobleman and getting just as dissatisfied with him. The only way to succeed lies in the one man who sees her for what she is.

Undine Spragg may actually be one of the most despicable, selfish characters in all of classic literature -- she literally doesn't care about anyone but herself, or who she hurts. You'd think a book about someone like that would be dreary, but instead it's one long needle at the people like Undine, who care only for money, status and fun.

But it's also about the changing fortunes in late 19th-century America (and Europe). New money -- symbolized by Undine and her shrewd, megarich ex-hubby -- was squeezing out the old guard, who were never terribly rich to start with. Wharton's observations on their rise and decline have a sharp, biting edge. Although compared to the anti-heroine, the old traditions seem pretty innocent.

Lots of celebrity socialites could take a lesson from Undine's story: she's a snob of humble stock, thinks she's a great person, and utterly selfish -- if her husband shoots himself, that's great! She can marry again without the disgrace of a divorce! Yet in the end, you know that Undine will always be craving something more that she thinks will make her happy, but she will never find it.

The characters around Undine are usually nice, but blinded by her nymphlike beauty -- and even her parents, who know what she's like, are too beaten-down by her whining to resist. Only her ex-husband, Ralph Marvell, is really right for her -- not only is he obscenely rich and just as grasping as Undine, but he's smart enough to know what a monster she is.

"The Custom of the Country" is a wickedly barbed, brilliant piece of work, with one of the nastiest anti-heroines ever, and a great look at the rising tides of "new money." A must-read.
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on May 3, 2012
Protagonist Undine Spragg is narcissistic and shallow, as is the society it is her overwhelming ambition to join. This society moves between Paris, London and New York " in season": the few men who must work to supplement their trust funds loathe their mundane jobs; the women trade on their beauty or their fortunes to get one of these men. Everyone's main avocation is spending money to adorn and amuse themselves. There is no sense of noblesse oblige, no loyalty to or belief in anything bigger than themselves. Undine is the most beautiful, and poorest, contender in this competition.

No one knows how to draw characters better than Wharton. Her artistry got me to stay with these unlikeable people to the end. What kept me going was waiting for the train wreck Undine seemed to be making of her life to finally occur...wondering how many people she could lure aboard and ruin, along with herself.

I think "The House of Mirth" is Wharton's best novel; its heroine Lily Bart is a study in how few choices American women had in its era (1905). You root for Lily, even though you know she's doomed in such a society. Undine is a more timeless woman. Gorgeous women can still trade on their looks and ambition to marry a Donald Trump, (though a total self-centered disregard for others would seldom be so strongly embedded in one person as it is in Undine). Beautiful women who snare a billionaire are no longer ruined by divorcing him today: they're set up for life! To see how Undine tried to work around divorce in her era, I had to keep going to the last page. There, I found one of the finest (and one of the saddest) last sentences in fiction.
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on January 5, 2012
If you enjoy luxuriating in the perfumed baths of those lost worlds of Merchant Ivory period pieces and Masterpiece Theatre series set among lavish interiors, where ambitious American socialites scheme to marry millionaires and conquer Paris, then this brilliant comic novel by Edith Wharton is a must-read.

This is a witty and cynical look at a world Henry James thought he ruled, but James had no idea that Wharton would create Undine Spragg, a determined heroine who never met a fortune that she didn't envy or a parure that she didn't covet. This is a world where one goes to the opera only on the right night, and not for the music or the singers, but in order to be seen (in a new gown and excessive jewels) by the right peope, who, one hopes, will invite you to a spectacular dinner party in a Fifth Avenue mansion, where you might meet a rich potential husband, who, of course, is probably already married, but that's never a problem to a beautiful young schemer on the make, who probably has more ambition than brains.

This is a glamorous world that perished forever with the Titanic and World War I--obscene luxury for those least deserving it. It's a world where educated upper middle-class people with uncontrolled ambition use "ain't," where "blent" is the accepted past participle of "blend," and where we get the necessay footnote to inform us what "lincrusta" is and why it is frowned upon by people with ostentatious taste. An art object is important only if you can impress people with how much you paid for it. This year's spouse is only a stepping stone to next year's higher goal.

Wharton surrounds Undine with a rogues gallery of types. Whether they are stereotypes or archetypes depends on how many of those comedies of social manners you have already read. But it must be said that this novel is one you should read.
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on October 30, 2013
Poor Ralph.

Poor Paul.

Everyone who comes into contact with Undine Spragg ends up regretting it. She pulls them in with her beauty and appearance of innocence, but this girl knows what she is doing - if only she could figure out what she wants. Constantly striving for whatever it is she doesn't have, Undine has a sense of entitlement that knows no bounds. If her parents can't provide it, then she must need a husband. If he is incapable, well, she'll find a lover who can meet her bills. She seems to feel no remorse for those she tramples in her quest to get . . . . well, she's not completely sure where.

I know that this novel is Wharton's big hit, but I honestly enjoyed others more, especially Age of Innocence, House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome. This novel is conspicuously missing the big surprise ending that haunts the reader long after finishing her other works. While not my favorite, this is still a very worthwhile read as anything by Wharton is beautifully written and thought provoking.
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on July 4, 2012
Under a veneer of great beauty, what a despicable character, Edith Wharton has created. One shudders to read of her and yet it is almost impossible to put the book down. She is a torture to her poor husband Ralph and a torture to her readers. There is no one like Edith Wharton to bring to life such a woman. I have downloaded all of Edith Wharton's novels onto my Kindle for almost nothing and am having a fascinating time immersing myself in her genius.
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on April 25, 2012
A horror show novel about an unbelievably beautiful but selfish, amoral, gold digger, social climber, trader upper; and the suffering she inadvertantly inflicts upon the people she uses. The reader is hooked in anticipation of the bad karma that's going to come down on her. But the plot takes unpredictable turns.

A little hard work to get into but worth it. Some challenging vocabulary. Maybe a little slow for some.
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on May 30, 2013
I don't usually read books of that vintage. I'm more of a Steinbeck or Faulkner reader. It was good of its kind, just not my cup of tea. Other than being a little bent from moisture, the book was in good shape.
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