My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was my first real Wharton (besides Ethan Frome and Bunner Sisters, two relatively short works). Gotta say I was impressed. It’s so nice to follow early Woolf (Night & Day) with a minor Wharton. They work in different, almost oppositional, ways.
Woolf knits these complex inner thoughts that hit the surface of a character in oblique indeterminate actions. Characters like Mary and Catherine seem ‘compelled’ by a matrix of psychologies they don’t quite grasp, making the things they do/say seem more like quicksand than volition. While Woolf definitely masters this and much more by the time she writes To the Lighthouse; the early stuff seems to sink into itself, lost in a rubble of half-thoughts, thoughts yet to thought, and beginnings that have not yet begun.
On the other hand, Wharton works on the outward societal matrix and its multifarious influences on characters’ subjectivity. While this matrix is much better tuned, expansive to the point of being airy, and “beautiful” in many ways — it’s not as convoluted or interesting. Wharton’s characters have been described as “two-dimensional” and while I understand the impulse to make this critique, I’m not as quick to judge. The work of bringing the outside inside is no small task, Wharton winnows the vast sociological landscape to its essential grains.
This feeling of calm came over me while reading The Fruit of the Tree, undiminished calm. This feeling wasn’t due to a subdued plot (the plot could have been… I don’t know… less soap-opera-ish, more elegant). This feeling hinged on Wharton’s ability to digest and activate all the social data clicking around the characters. It makes the world feel more manageable, because most of the characters could actually see the world and bang out their relation to it. Now whether she used this power to really get at something, is another story. I’m not sure she did. But I did thoroughly enjoy this book. And I’m definitely reading more Wharton.