Books of 2007: The Custom of the Country

Friends of The Reader write about their books of 2007.

By Angela Macmillan

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I thought that choosing my best book of the year would be simple but I seem to have been dithering for ages. Finally however, I have decided to make things easier and pick one of the new to me novels, because nothing is going to better a third or fourth read of Dombey and Son or Adam Bede. So it has come down to Gilead by Marilynne Robinson or The Custom of the Country and I am going to settle for the latter because Edith Wharton is so extraordinarily impressive and because we have given Gilead a thorough recommendation in The Reader magazine. I have to say that The Custom of the Country is not as good as The House of Mirth or even The Age of Innocence; even so, I prize it highly.

The first thing people always say about Edith Wharton is that she is brilliant at precisely delineating New York high society on the brink of dissolution in the face of big business and new money. She knew about it because in 1862 she was born into this prominent, fashionable society with its strict codes of social order and inflexible rules and although she moved to France and changed her views, this world remains central to her experience. However, it is the depth and truth of her complex characters that fascinate me. So it was rather a surprise to come to Undine Spragg (named after her newly rich father’s hair curling solution). For the stunningly beautiful Undine has no depth, no truth, no warmth, no sympathy with anyone other than herself. The book follows this arriviste as she launches herself at ‘stylish’ society, and through the marriages she makes to further her advancement. The shallowness of the central character leaves the book in danger of becoming merely lightweight. Yet Edith Wharton details the consummate ease with which a thoughtless person can justify and excuse their own immoral behaviour and the terrible emotional damage such a person inflicts upon those caught up in their glittering heartlessness and here is where the weight of the novel lies. The final scene in which her overwhelmingly lonely and unloved young son, uprooted once again, roams hopelessly through another newly acquired magnificent mansion is just devastating.

Best biography is Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life by Philip Davis. This book is the business.

Best (new to me) anthology is Something Understood edited by Mark Tully. Here is poetry and prose reflecting the depth and universality of human experience.

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Previously a teacher on the University of Liverpool’s Continuing Education programme, Angela Macmillan is one of the founders of The Reader magazine and remains a dedicated co-editor. Angela coordinates our student volunteer scheme and is a project worker with The Reader Organisation’s Get Into Reading project. She also provides us with a delicious lunch in the office on a Friday.