Sunday, August 16, 2009


Summer, by Edith Wharton, 1916

Charity Royall is the smartest, prettiest girl in her tiny Massachusets hamlet. But she can’t shake the shame of knowing that when she was a little girl, she was adopted from The Mountain, where the people “aren’t half human.” When a handsome, well-educated young architect comes to the village to look for old houses, gossip and (eventually) passion fly. By the end of the summer, things will be very different for Charity.

Because of the period in which it was written, Summer may remind modern readers of Jane Austen. However, I found the language a lot easier to understand than in Austen’s books. This might be because it was written some decades later, and because it is set in America, not Britain. It is a fairly short book and goes quickly.

One thing that makes Austen fun (and funny) is the scale of moral and social values from which she writes. Also she never comes right out and says it, it’s clear from the way Austen writes about her characters which ones are behaving well or foolishly, which are ladies and gentlemen and which are not. Often the humor comes from the way the well-bred characters respond to foolishness on the part of others.

Wharton in Summer is just the opposite. One thing that makes the book such a pleasure to read is the nonjudgementalness with which Wharton reports the thoughts, behavior and choices of her characters. Charity is not cultured or well-educated, and almost all her choices are foolish ones. Nevertheless, she is a very sympathetic character and we can always identify with her emotions and actions. Wharton portrays her characters without rosiness, indulgence or sentimentality, but (I think it is not too much to say) with a great deal of grace and love. She has nothing but realistic understanding even for Charity’s alchoholic, sometimes lecherous guardian.

This book could break your heart if you read it as a teenager, especially if you were expecting a classic romantic plot and resolution. It didn’t break mine, because Wharton gives you enough red flags that you can brace yourself for what’s coming. But it has really stayed with me. Might be an excellent book to read with teens.

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