How can an author create a character who is completely unsympathetic but completely fascinating? Shouldn't I eventually have gotten fed up with an amoral, cold-blooded, manipulative conniver with the unlikely name of Undine Spragg? Not when the author is as talented as the inestimable Edith Wharton. Her heroine Lily Bart in “House of Mirth” paid dearly for her poor decisions, but in The Custom of the Country Wharton goes down another path.
The book opens with the exclamation “Undine Spragg – how can you?”, and there were many times while reading this book that I felt the same way. Undine has dragged her nouveau riche parents from the midwestern hinterlands of Apex City to New York City so she can advance into high society, and although she has her share of missteps she slowly climbs the ladder. But each time she achieves a new rung her horizon broadens, and she catches sight of her next goal. A woman's road to advancement in society was through an advantageous marriage, and Undine acquires and discards husbands in New York and Paris in much the same way as she does her expensive dresses and hats.
Each time I would think that Undine was about to get her comeuppance she would execute an unexpected pivot, leaving spouses, friends and even her own child foundering in her wake, and sail on to another success. Wharton has a keen eye for the foibles of the rich and for the customs of American and European society. She has created a character who is memorable, if not admirable, and thoroughly entertaining.