After reading a string of classics that I felt only so-so about, I really needed to get back on track with a classic that I would actually like. Out of everything left on my Classics Club list, the most appealing book there was Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton. Wharton is one of my favorite authors and I have liked almost everything I've read from her so far. In fact, I have so much faith in her ability to entertain me that she made it into my challenge list four separate times--more than any other author. I figured she was my best shot at reviving my engagement in classic literature, so I decided to give the novel a go.
The plot follows the Manfords, a wealthy family living in New York in the 1920s. The matriarch of the family, Pauline Manford, is a whirling dervish of activity. She's on several different committees, hosts frequent dinner parties, and socializes with the best people all over town. She has a personal secretary to keep track of all her different engagements and is busy almost every hour of every day. To cope with the stress of all her activities, she visits all the trendy "spiritual healers" for expensive treatments designed to cure her anxieties and prevents wrinkles from forming on her face.
Her husband, Dexter, is quite the opposite. He is a successful lawyer and longs for a simpler life. He's tired of being dragged all over town to parties and dinners and longs to live a quiet life at home. He's good at his job, but is becoming weary of it. He does like his fun however, and entertains himself by indulging in affairs every now and then. Pauline's first husband, Arthur, is also a part of their family life. He's a bit of a hypochondriac and spends his time dealing with various doctors and illnesses. Arthur's split from Pauline was amicable, and both her and Dexter visit him from time to time.
The adult children in the family, Jim and Nona, indulge their mother's activities with good humor, but they have their own problems going on under the surface. Nona is hopelessly in love with a married man, but refuses to act immorally and start a relationship with him. Jim is married to a vivacious woman named Lita, but he can sense she's getting bored. She's a party girl, and settled family life really isn't for her. He fears that she's about to ask for a divorce so she can travel to Hollywood and become an actress. Watching all the characters sort out their problems forms the bulk of the novel.
I thought that Twilight Sleep was okay. It's not my favorite Wharton novel, but it's not the worst I've read from her either. Each of the characters were interesting, there were several humorous moments, and lots of little critiques of high society popped up. It was a rather quick read too, so I didn't feel bogged down at all with it. Wharton's writing style is always a pleasure to experience. I'm not mad that I read this. It wasn't as entertaining as I was hoping for though.
The main issue for me was its lack of one central plot. As I said, it follows all of the Manfords as they deal with their various issues and try to find their own paths to happiness. What (supposedly) ties all their stories together is that all of the characters are hopelessly bored with their upper class, luxurious lives. Each one of them is looking for their own version of "twilight sleep" to make it through their days. Pauline has her social engagements, Dexter has his affairs, Arthur has his doctor's appointments, Nona has her hopeless romance, Jim has his glamorous wife, and Lita has her parties. None of these things truly satisfy any of these characters, but they do make the time pass. I could see how Wharton meant for their various plotlines to connect. I didn't think this commonality was strong enough to create a tight story in the end though.
The plot does pick up at the end of the novel with a surprise burst of intrigue and violence. When it comes though, it almost felt out of place for me. Not enough time had been spent with any of the characters involved for me to fully understand what was happening. I kind of understood it, but I actually had to look up the ending online to make sure my inferences were correct. Edith Wharton is a master at saying something without really saying it, but in this case, I don't think her twist came off as well as it could have.
So ultimately, this ended up being a "meh" experience for me, but at least it was quick to read and still fairly entertaining. I know Wharton is capable of absolute masterpieces, so it's a little bit of a disappointment that I didn't end up loving this novel, but it did accomplish my goal of finding a classic to read that wasn't a slow torture session. It's bittersweet that this is the last Wharton book on my Classics Club list, but I am excited to cross it off and be one step closer to completing this challenge.