The New York Stories of Edith Wharton 

Edith Wharton
New York Review of Book
Available now

Let’s do this the way Edith Wharton’s publicist would do it: “Steeped in Manhattan high society, Edith Wharton has a unique perspective on the lavish parties, debauched bachelors and vicious women of a certain age who prowl the penthouses of Manhattan.”

All true. Except since The New York Stories of Edith Wharton spans the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the indiscretions within are a lot more nuanced than in, say, Gossip Girl. In ‘Autres Temps…’ a blush is described with such care and passion as to seem sexual, and in ‘The Other Two’ the hatred between two men is telegraphed by the way one avoids another getting out of a restaurant, just as well as it would be in any fight.

But Edith Wharton’s subtlety doesn’t hide her passions: a longing for the structure and stability of “Old New York” and, curiously, a fascination with divorce. Nowadays we don’t think of it much, but when Wharton went through a divorce with her husband in 1913, it was as scandalous as throwing your panties at a teenage rival in a restaurant. Many of Wharton’s characters are divorcees, and replacing the word “divorcee” with the word “slut” brings her stories into the present day, where women are wrestling with another sort of sexual freedom.

Wharton’s prose can be a chore at first. It’s loopy and wordy, but her more straightforward sentences seem to anticipate the plainer prose of her early 20th-century successors. The dialogue, unfortunately, does not age well, keeping an air of perfection that makes the characters sound affected.

It is worth noting that anyone looking for the seamier side of New York’s past won’t find it here. Wharton was raised in high society and knows that she writes about it best. In ‘A Cup of Cold Water’, when our dandy protagonist falls prey to financial ills and has to leave New York on a boat, Wharton seems scared herself to put him there.

But Wharton really hits a ringing note for present-day New York with the first story in the collection, ‘Mrs. Mansfield’s View’. A woman, angered by a new building going up across her yard, decides to burn it down. Don’t let this one get in the hands of any particularly active community boards.

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