Summer by Edith Wharton

April 10, 2013

Plot summary (from the publisher): Summer, Edith Wharton wrote to Gaillard Lapsley, “is known to its author and her familars as the Hot Ethan.” One of the first American novels to deal frankly with a young woman’s sexual awakening, it was a publishing sensation when it appeared in 1917, praised by Joseph Conrad, Howard Sturgis, and Percy Lubbock, and favorably compared to Madame Bovary. Like its predecessor, Ethan Frome, it is set in the Berkshires, but the season is summer and the story is that of Charity Royall, a New Englander of humble origins — passionate, forthright, and proud — and her torrid affair with Lucius Harney, an artistically inclined young man from the city. A novel that “breaks, or stretches, many conventions of women’s romantic love stories and in the process creates a new picture of female sexuality,” as Marilyn French writes in her introduction, Summer is “a clamorous and ecstatic affirmation of the joy of sexual love no matter what it costs.” Bold in conception, rich in imagery, and provocative by implication, it was one of Edith Wharton’s personal favorites, and stands as one of her greatest novelistic achievements.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • This book provided an interesting look at early 20th-century social conventions regarding sexual conventions and the stigma attached to “loose” or “dissolute” women.
  • The foreshadowing regarding Julia’s rumored trip to the abortionist was obvious, but still well done. Even though I knew it was coming, I still felt for Charity when she had to go there herself.

Disliked:

  • The publisher’s description refers to a “torrid affair” between Charity and Lucius, but that phrase hardly fits. Even taking into account the constraints of writing in 1917, this was tame, tame, TAME. If you’re expecting anything even approaching Madame Bovary’s infamous carriage ride through the streets of Paris, forget it!
  • Charity was such as bland heroine. She pretty much just accepted everything that happened to her, from the pregnancy to Harney’s betrayal to marrying Lawyer Royall. It’s hard to get behind such a passive protagonist.

Rating:

Summer by Edith Wharton deserves to be read as part of the author’s larger body of work, but doesn’t do very well as a standalone novel. I couldn’t help but think that a “romance” novel with characters as boring as these wouldn’t stand a chance of getting published today. I know that’s not exactly a fair comparison because of the different moral constraints, but you get my point. I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

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