Friday, May 6, 2011

Updating a Classic

Am I just imagining it, or is Lily Bart following me? I admit that I love Edith Wharton's “House of Mirth”, and that I think there is something iconic and uniquely American about her heroine. When I read Steve Martin's “An Object of Beauty” (Art Objects) I thought his Lacey Yeager seemed to possess that same combination of ambition, intelligence, a basic decency complicated by moral ambiguity and society's strictures. And now author Victoria Patterson re-creates Lily's story in This Vacant Paradise, where heroine Esther Wilson is transplanted to Newport Beach, California in the 1990's.

Orange County is a long way from Manhattan of the 1890's, but some things seem never to change. An attractive young woman torn between marrying for money and finding true love with a poor man – does that plot ever go out of style? And, like Lily, Esther sabotages her best chance for financial security, disappoints and eventually alienates her family and friends, all because she can't let go of her longing for some deeper connection that she herself cannot define or understand.

Patterson's cast of characters is far from sympathetic. Most are shallow, venal, judging everyone by social status and possessions – not too different from Wharton's. Esther is at least clear-eyed about the society she inhabits, and her moral compass prevents her from making the easy choices, but eventually leads to her downfall.

Patterson's writing does not match Wharton's elegance, but perhaps her more florid style is meant to reflect the excesses of Orange County life, where drinking sour apple martinis in a bar in the Fashion Island mall passes for  elegance.
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