We continue our dabbling into books that touch on topics in American history and society. Part one is here.
Edith Wharton is best known for writing The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome, but Francesca would first recommend one of her lesser-known novels, The Custom of the Country, for its readability and deliciously entertaining drama. It is the story of Undine Spragg, who rises to ever higher socioeconomic levels by marrying successively more socioeconomically desirable husbands. Francesca wrote a long thesis paper on this book in college and can tell you some interesting trivia which deepens the book. In 1913, when The Custom of the Country was written, the divorce rate in America had recently doubled, from 2 percent to 4 percent (yes, I know, I know) and there was much concern for the state of American marriage. This, combined with Wharton’s interest in women’s inability to change their life circumstances except through their husbands, led her to ask: What if we take both of these situations together to their logical conclusion? The result is a main character you will love to hate. And, also, a window into just-post-Edwardian New York, which Francesca always loves. New York in 1913 had a lot going on, indeed. And fantastic clothes.
This week, Francesca recommends two books by one of Francesca’s favorite authors, Mr. John Steinbeck. Sure, his writing is wordy. It is also relatable. Reading a Steinbeck story is like having a grandpa telling Francesca stories by the fire. Sometimes they comforting. Sometimes they are scary. Always there is something familiar about them. They speak of, and to, the American soul!
East of Eden is an epic novel of . . . well, epic, nay Biblical, proportions. Indeed, the many, many Biblical allusions (and even outright references) will amuse and gratify anyone familiar with the Book of Genesis. The story follows several generations of two families in California’s Salinas valley at the start of the 20th century. It’s got patricide. It’s got prostitution. It’s got sibling rivalry. It’s also got nobility, and dignity, and wisdom. Steinbeck considered it his greatest work, and Francesca agrees.
Francesca studied The Grapes of Wrath in 11th grade, and it is only because she had a wonderful, wonderful teacher that she escaped the great tragedy which is other people thinking the book is boring. As Francesca often says, “the best way to kill a book is to teach it in high school.” This book is wonderful. It follows a family who is driven out of the Oklahoma farm by the dust bowl of the 1930’s and the Great Depression, and make their way to California. The injustices they suffer along the way at the hands of other Americans are very angering, and gain an extra level of poignancy when read now, after, say, the Katrina debacle. The chapter in which we find out why the book is called The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most lyrical, beautiful, goose-bump inducing pieces of writing ever.
Francesca wishes everyone happy reading! xoxo!