The last time I read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth I vowed it would be the last. I had read it before, three or four times, and by this point I found the slow decline of Lily Bart painfully tragic because it is so pointless. And I wanted to yell at both her and Selden, constantly, “Just make-out and get married and be poor and get over it or just keep the hell away from each other so Lily can marry some rich idiot and at least not die!” (Spoiler alert, I guess.) I found it painful and heartbreaking, like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
Which perhaps explains why I loved Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Beautiful Ones, a sort of antidote to Wharton. In this novel, Moreno-Garcia puts a feminist spin on the marriage-market themed novel-of-manners but a fairy tale one where you know the people who are supposed to end up together will end up together and the baddies will get their comeuppance. It’s set in a version of belle époque France (the French analogue to the United States’ Guilded Age of which Wharton lived in and wrote about) where some individuals have telekinetic powers, known as a “talent.” The main character, Nina, is a marriageable young woman of large fortune, sent to the novel’s Paris analogue (named Losail) for the “Grand Season” to procure herself a husband under the tutelage of Valérie, the beautiful but severe wife of her cousin. But Nina does not understand the rules of fancy society and, moreover, she would rather spend her time in the unladylike pursuits of catching and examining insects and cultivating her “talent.” Enter Hector Auvray, a once-impoverished, now wealthy entertainer, a self-made man who uses his “talent” to delight and amaze audiences and who has a longstanding connection to Valérie.
Among the things I appreciated about this book is that the “talent” functions primarily as a revealing symbol for the unequal treatment of women during the time, the way that the talent opens up Hector’s world while limiting, possibly even derailing, Nina’s options. Having Nina also be a scientist only further underscores the point. But the novel’s contemporary feminist revisioning (I note the “contemporary” because, in her own way, Wharton was also making proto-feminist arguments in House of Mirth) mostly made it comfortable and easy for me to savor the melodrama and romance of the novel. Because sometimes, what a reader really needs is something fun and swoony to distract from the horrors of the world.
Which is why I also enjoyed The Glass House by Beatrice Colin. This novel is less swoony in the romantic sense but still plays in that historical fiction sandbox. At Balmarra, an ailing manor house in Scotland, Antonia tries to keep things functioning after the recent death of the family patriarch. Her brother, George, decamped to India decades ago, and Antonia’s sedate, mousy life is thrown into upheaval by the arrive of Cicely, a woman claiming to be George’s wife, and her daughter. Set at the turn-of-the-century, the novel engages with familiar tropes of rising technology, the breakdown of social mores, and the decline of the landed gentry. But it does so in an entirely lush and fun way. It had a few too “if something can go wrong, it will” twists for me but, again, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that everything turns out basically okay in the end. I read it in two days last weekend and that felt about right: not quite a beach read but definitely a weekend draught.
Speaking of beach reads, Beach Read by Emily Henry both embraces and subverts its romance genre fundamentals. In this contemporary-set novel, millennial romance writer January Andrews has fled to a small town in the Great Lakes region, beset by writer’s block after the revelation that her parents’ perfect marriage was not so perfect. There she discovers that her neighbor is an old college classmate, August “Gus” Everett, also a writer but of the serious, literary, “Great American Novel” persuasion. Gus, however, is also wrestling with his own writer’s block so they make a semi-caustic pact: January will attempt to break through by writing serious literary fiction, Gus will do the same but with romance, and they will each spend time educating the other about their respective genres. Wackiness ensues. And by “wackiness” I of course mean steamy tension of the “enemies to friends to lovers” variety.
Beach Read is not the kind of book I usually read. Which is why I decided to set aside my preconceived biases and read it. Do I think it’s the best thing ever written? No. But did I have a fair bit of fun reading it? Yes. It includes one joke that I’m still giggling about. January and Gus both write in their respective kitchens, able to see each other through the window across the way. At some point they begin writing notes to each other on sheets of paper with sharpies, holding them up through the window. One day, Gus writes something innocuous like, “Want to get pizza later?” And January writes back, “New phone, who dis?” It’s silly, snarky, and contemporary, and it makes me laugh. Moreover, I really want to read the fictional “serious” novel that January writes about a family of traveling circus performers in Depression Era U.S., dealing with the fallout of corrosive secrets and intergenerational trauma. Beach Read is ultimately a nice representation of recovering from the slings and arrows that life lobs at all of us, and sometimes what I, as a reader, really need is simply something to distract me from the horrors of the world.