Picks and Pans Review: The Stories of Edith Wharton

updated 06/11/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/11/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Selected and introduced by Anita Brookner

Unfortunately, for most readers the name Edith Wharton, if it conjures up anything at all, conjures up the gloomy novel Ethan Frome. Too few are familiar with her masterworks The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, which are chronicles of doomed attempts to buck the rigid code of late 19th-and early 20th-century New York society. Fewer still know of her consummate skill at short fiction.

One might argue at the omission of some stories from this collection, for example "Xingu," Wharton's stinging satire of philistine club women bent on intellectual enrichment, or "Roman Fever," which centers on two women involved with the same man and offers up an ending as twisting as anything in O. Henry.

But there are many, many pleasures in the 14 stories assembled by Brookner: a sure-handedness to the narrative, an acuteness in understanding the folly that perhaps Wharton saw as the human condition, an incisiveness in character delineation.

"Mrs. Amyot had two fatal gifts," Wharton notes of one of her characters in "The Pelican," "a capacious but inaccurate memory, and an extraordinary fluency of speech." Elsewhere, the opinions of a mentally unemployed woman are described by her husband as "heirlooms." He "took a quaint pleasure in tracing their descent. She was proud of their age, and saw no reason or discarding them while they were still serviceable. Some, of course, were so fine that she kept them for state occasions like her great-grandmother's Crown Derby."

There are few happy marriages in Wharton, few romances come to a happy turn, perhaps because the author sees men and women as essentially incompatible. The strongest offerings in the collection, "The Reckoning" and "The Letters," deal with that precise issue.

The theme that pervades most of Wharton's fiction—the inviolability of the social order—surfaces in "Autres Temps...," a story that deals with divorce and its reverberations into the next generation. Indeed, only the ghost story "Pomegranate Seed" is less than sterling Wharton; she is at her most chilling when grounded in reality. (Carroll & Graf. 18.95)

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