Blurb for The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
Set in the 1920s, Glimpses of the Moon details the romantic misadventures of Nick Lansing and Susy Branch, a couple with the right connections but not much in the way of funds. They devise a shrewd bargain: they’ll marry and spend a year or so sponging off their wealthy friends, honeymooning in their mansions and villas. As Susy explains, “We should really, in a way, help more than hamper each other. We both know the ropes so well; what one of us didn’t see the other might – in the way of opportunities, I mean”. The other part of the plan states that if either one of them meets someone who can advance them socially, they’re free to dissolve the marriage. How their plan unfolds is a comedy of errors that will charm all fans of Wharton’s work.
This book was just what I needed to pick me up from a series of reading disappointments. There haven’t been many new reads I’ve discovered that I really liked instantly and kept me interested and enjoying them all the way through. It’s also been a minute since I read a book that focussed mainly on the “romance” aspect, because I often find the tension and drama to be so contrived and predictable, in addition to one or the other of the characters being bland or unlikeable. But this was not that, I’m happy to report.
A marriage of convenience between friends and drama ensuing is definitely not a new premise, but I loved Wharton’s handling of the situation and how both characters, Nick and Susy, viewed it—as an extended holiday, a way to enjoy each other’s company and sponge off their friends under the guise of a “honeymoon.” When they realise they’re catching feelings, it’s in an organic, natural way that affects both of them slightly differently. But it’s not just internal conflict, there’s pretty major external societal pressures arising that force them to make tough decisions and re-evaluate their relationship. And the crux of it arises from how differently they both approach the same issue—in a way the conflict serves to illuminate their characters, to the reader and to themselves.
Both Nick and Susy were likeable and relatable—they both get chapters from their perspectives and their respective inner monologues help elucidate the thought processes behind their actions, their justifications, and their views on the other. And the thoughts didn’t partake of that romantic trope of just being continuous beating the dead horse of angst and self-doubt that would be easily resolved through normal interaction: they actually felt like real thought patterns that people have, including questions of morality and their places in society. Nick is struggling to be a writer, dealing with extended periods of apathy and low motivation, and Susy is very decided about what she wants and doesn’t want for her life, trusting to her own ingenuity to get her there. Both of their tendencies in those directions get them in trouble in regard to their own relationship and lead them further and further apart, into the arms of someone else—
And here’s where I really applaud Wharton for how intense she made the story. Susy and Nick both have alternative options that they consider—other people with the wealth and power to make their lives comfortable and secure, who are also decent people. Often, romance stories take the route of making the other prospect completely disqualify themselves by some egregious mistake or character flaw, rather than actually making them solid competition for their counterpart. If the guy is considering another woman, she turns out to be a designing vixen, unfaithful vamp, or shrinking violet. If the woman is considering another guy, he turns out to be a domineering disciplinarian, a slimy businessman, or a serial wife-murderer. What happens then is that their competition doesn’t actually have to have a personality, let alone a well-developed and admirable character, in order to be the obvious choice in the end.
But in this book, Susy has a great friendship with her second choice, always regards him in the same way, and he always treats her well. He changes a little, but so does she, and it is in the natural way—nothing dramatic like a skeleton leaping out of the closet of the old family estate. And Nick’s second choice is also an interesting and likeable character—she is not pretty, but distinguished and intelligent, and her character is so practical and blunt that you can’t help but respect her for her clear-eyed realism. In fact, how she and Nick are left when the novel ends is one of the slight feelings of dissatisfaction I have—it is presumed everything will be explained. It’s so much more compelling that you can see how Nick and Susy might reasonably make the choice to go for someone else. Throughout my reading of it, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a light social, romantic comedy and that there was no Tess of the D’Urbervilles-ian tragedy possible. But it was tense. And the ending, while boasting a few romance clichés, was delivered in such a unique, unexpected, heartwarmingly hilarious and realistic way that I was too busy being subtly amused to fault-find.
And the writing! swoon I gave up lingering on every beautiful turn of phrase and atmospheric description. Simply reading through it for enjoyment once makes me want to go back and read it again just to appreciate the writing. But it’s not straight “deep purple prose”. Wharton keeps the pace up by summarizing extended periods of time in which life goes on as established and nothing new or momentous occurs. The key to this is life goes on as established—you have to establish what’s going on first, and Wharton does it beautifully. The moments of description establish setting and mood efficiently for the plot. Additionally, they prevented any character from being a blank. Honestly, I’m jealous of how quickly she manages to give a character, even the most minor character, vivid descriptions that ensure you don’t forget who they are, even if they never reappear except by verbal reference. As a small example, one character is described as “a drifting interrogation,” looking for a purpose, in contrast with someone who fulfilled herself; and, for physical description, as being sunk in a black divan “like a wan Nereid in a midnight sea.” It’s beautiful and you instantly get a feel for this woman as a character.
This was such an enjoyable read, and I’m already looking forward to reading it again.
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