"The Reef"

The Reef by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton, who was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (for The Age of Innocence) is one of my favourite writers. I've read several of her novels - Summer, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and now The Reef, and have never been disappointed. I always feel particularly partial to the one I'm reading at the present moment, but I think over all my favourite is still Ethan Frome.

In this one George D. is going to France to propose to his lady love, Anna L., a widow with a young daughter. Anna and George had a romance years ago before she was married and he has carried the torch all these years. Anna has shown a reserve in their meetings that has George worried, and when at the last minute he receives a telegram telling him not to come now, with no explanation other than an "unexpected obstacle", he begins to think she is not committed to their relationship, and he is hurt and angry. Enter damsel in distress, Sophy V. He offers assistance and is charmed by her quirkiness and her straightforward manner. One thing leads to another, they spend a few days together, then they eventually go their own ways, back to their own lives.

George and Anna resolve their difficulties and he visits her at the family's chateau, Givré, in France, where he is to meet Anna's little girl so they can spend some time getting to know each other. When the girl and her governess enter the room, George finds to his horror that the governess is none other than his lady in distress, Sophy V.  But this is only the first complication. Anna has a brother who is in love with Sophy, and he has no idea that she has a history with George. Let the lying begin.

On the surface it's a quick, enjoyable read, but there are deeper things to consider as we watch the relationships unravel and each character decide what they can, and can't, live with, and why. There are questions that need answers, questions about male and female roles, about social expectations, sexuality, truth, and the nature of love. Wharton doesn't provide them all, and the ones she does provide are not always comfortable. It is a romance, but it is surely not a fairy tale. These are flawed people whose ideals and desires clash, pushing and pulling them in every direction.

What truly fascinated me was the way the author used facial expression, tone of voice, and every nuance of body language to tell the story of what was really taking place around all the reserved verbal communicating. She has such skill at observing, and conveying to the reader, what makes the characters tick, and such insight into the endless human struggle with right and wrong, that it's mesmerizing. Sometimes I got tired of Anna's indecision, but these are not characters that let you walk away from them. You have to - and you want to - stick with them to the end, and even then, they may refuse to leave you.

Great writing, good story, and lots to ponder in this one. Highly recommended.


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