An Edith Wharton novel should be savored, not merely read. But then I'm biased. I've been a fan of Edith Wharton since I first saw The Age of Innocence. Over the years I've read my way through most of her novels, loving each one (except Ethan Frome). That's why I chose The Children
as my first classic of 2014.
Once again Wharton has crafted some wonderfully memorable characters. First, there's Martin Boyne, a 46-year-old bachelor who "was doomed to blunder in his dealings with women, even when they were no more than little girls." Then there's the newly widowed Rose Sellars, Martin's longtime friend whom he's promised to meet in Cortina. Last, but not least, there are the seven Wheater children who Martin meets aboard a steamship sailing for Italy: Judith, Terry, Blanca, Bun, Beechy, Zinnie, and Chip. These irrepressible and irresistable children, with their multiple parents and step-parents, quickly draw Martin into the madcap drama of their lives.
When these same children decide to run away from their selfish society parents, they run straight to Martin. As the eldest, 15-year-old Judith explains her decision this way: "I brought the children away so that we wouldn't be separated again. If children don't look after each other, who's going to do it for them? You can't expect parents to, when they don't know how to look after themselves." And not even Rose's sensible objections can prevent Martin from involving himself heart and soul in their plight. Things get even trickier when Rose and Judith meet. It's a Wharton inevitability that Martin finds himself torn between these two women: one his dearest friend, the other a lovely but too-worldly wise young girl. (Don't worry, this is Edith Wharton we're talking about, not Nabakov.)
For me, this novel was bittersweet. I liked Martin and Rose and Judith. I wanted happy endings for all three, but... I love the elegance of Edith Wharton's writing. And how sympathetic her characters are. (Except for the adult Wheaters and their former and current partners who are easy to despise.) I also admire Wharton's biting wit and her satirical (and often scathing) portrayal of society's meaningless manners and all its opulent inanity. Edith Wharton isn't just a storyteller; she's a truth teller. And in The Children
she is at her best.