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 -- a long satirical jab at the shallow and ambitious people of the world, especially those who coast on beauty and charm alone. It's nauseating and brilliant all at once, and leaves you with a pretty good idea of how Wharton would have written about reality "stars."
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 back in the Midwest. 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 -- and the joy of loathing her overwhelms any need for a sympathetic protagonist.
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, if decayed and kind of useless.
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 and tantrums to resist whatever she demands. 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 narcissistic monster she is, and the right ways to counter that ugly personality.
"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 clever, biting book with a timeless edge.
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