Sunday 18 May 2014

The Reef by Edith Wharton

I'm not sure how I'm going to review The Reef without revealing spoilers, so read ahead at your own peril.

Firstly, I'm not even sure if I enjoyed The Reef!

I read The Age of Innocence, House of Mirth, Custom of the County and Ethan Frome in my twenties. I remember loving them, especially TAOI. I loved the angst, the tortured social niceties, the scruples, the rumours, the temptations & foibles of an age long gone.

Somehow The Reef seemed to just miss all these marks.

I found it difficult to get into. I struggled to truly empathise or feel for any of the main characters. The main love affair felt contrived; the young lovers were obviously all wrong and the shocking affair that stained all the characters by the end simply felt ridiculous!

I also didn't get that sense of time & place in The Reef, like I did with her other novels that were based in New York & the US. The French countryside around Givré somehow felt Americanised, although maybe that was a deliberate comment on the American influence of Anna on her environment?

So why did I read it all the way through?

Hope - that I would find a connection or a way in.

Memory - of how much I had loved Wharton's previous works.

Faith - in the pulling power of Paris.

Trust - the main theme of the book and also my trust in Wharton.

Writing - it's impossible to describe how wonderfully Wharton writes. It's just that this time, I loved the writing, but felt that it missed heart and soul. Maybe I was too busy admiring the writing to properly engage with the story?

But the ending? What was with that ending?

I knew that Wharton liked to leave her endings open & ambiguous from old. I also knew that happy endings were not her forte.

But Jimmy Brance again at the end? The young man who was tied up with Darrow, Sophy and Lady Ulrica at Mrs Murrett's place before the novel begins.
How did he become attached to Sophy's sister at the end?
What is Wharton trying to say by reminding us of the early chapters where Darrow explains his experiences with different types of ladies?

I'm all confusion and a mess of unresolved story lines.

I'd love to know what you, dear reader, thinks of all this.
What did you make of The Reef?
Can you clear up my muddle?


  1. Anonymous19/5/14

    I really enjoyed the Reef with its subtly and ambiguity. The ending is odd and I think serves to remind the reader that against all the other ridiculous people with their selfishness and indecision Sophy was (supposedly) the better and possibly the freeer woman.

    1. That makes sense (kind of!) Ali, but I can't get it out my mind that Brance was meant to signify something.

      Wharton's subtly and ambiguity are certainly her trademark & that's what kept me going even as I couldn't care less about what happened to any of her characters!

  2. Oh, no! I am open to more Edith Wharton and wondering what to read next. I've not read The Reef. Is this one I should skip?

    1. If you're already a Wharton fan and have read several of her other books, this is definitely worth it.
      In some ways it's a French Ethan Frome with the love triangle at the centre of the story & trust and betrayal as its main themes.

      The writing is ridiculously good; I simply failed to connect to any of the characters and none of the relationships seemed real and authentic. Perhaps it was a time and place thing...but I've read enough Wharton and enough classics in my time for that to not really be the issue here.

      There was a coolness and a distance between the characters as well as between me and the characters. I've since found out the Givré (the name of Anna's country home) means 'frosty' and in slang it means 'crazy'. So, again, perhaps this was deliberate.

      Other reviews I've read also vacillate between love/hate and indifference.
      It's worth reading to find out for yourself :-)

  3. Anonymous3/6/14

    I had no idea this was in Paris, shame on me. Thanks for sharing


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