I don't think this is the most famous of Wharton's novels, but a review quotation on the cover says "Edith Wharton's finest achievement," and that may be true. This is a wonderful novel.
Undine Spragg, social climber and daughter of suddenly-wealthy parents, is set on getting her own way. She wants to move in the best circles, and to do that she has dragged her parents to New York City. There, she waits for her chance to break into the enchanted circles of the Gilded Age. Soon she meets and charms a young man belonging to the old New York aristocracy, but exclusivity turns out to be less fun than she thought it would be; the aristocracy are not wealthy enough for Undine. Surely there is more out there for her.
I really had kind of a hard time with this novel. It's a beautifully-written, excellent novel, but Undine is constantly, blindly, willfully extravagant, and it was painful to read about. She simply believes with all her heart that she deserves to get everything she wants as soon as she wants it; and what she wants costs millions. She also wants some contradictory things--to move in the highest, most exclusive society, and to act just like the more showy and vulgar nouveau riche who can afford more. Undine tramples on a lot of people on her way up. I often had to make myself pick up the book, but by the end I could barely put it down. Some samples of Undine's character:
Her eyes grew absent-minded, as they always did when he alluded to business. THAT was man's province; and what did men go "down town" for but to bring back the spoils to their women?A great American novel of the Gilded Age. Read it!
...he now knew that a disregard for money may imply not the willingness to get on without it but merely a blind confidence that it will somehow be provided. If Undine, like the lilies of the field, took no care, it was not because her wants were as few but because she assumed that care would be taken for her by those whose privilege it was to enable her to unite floral insouciance with Sheban elegance.
If only everyone would do as she wished she would never be unreasonable.
For this week's readathon, we are supposed to pick music to go with our reading. I actually finished this novel yesterday, before the readathon started, but an old 80s song, Everything She Wants, started playing in my head before I was halfway through the book. It is, after all, the story of a man married to a modern Undine. Here you go, and be sure to enjoy the hairdos: