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Finding Balance and Pleasure in 'The House of Mirth'

In my early 20s, I "met" author Edith Wharton in a literature class while I was living in Paris and attending the Sorbonne. Right away, I felt I had a friend.

I had recently spent a year in New England and New York — and was acutely aware of how living in a new country makes you see the strengths and weaknesses of your own. Wharton was a writer who knew both America and Europe. I was hooked.

It was during those years that I first read The House of Mirth.

I was in Paris during the spring 1968 student riots when final exams got postponed indefinitely and "provincial" students like me got stuck in Paris because the trains and everything else were on strike.

These were exciting times! I was absorbing all these changes in a modern French society where centuries-old ideas on class and politics were being tossed away. Every day, the boulevards resembled the revolutionary France of two centuries earlier, with screaming, swearing, fighting, anger and violence of a kind I had never encountered in the modest world where I grew up.

The House of Mirth caught my attention because of the character of Lily Bart, which drew me into this rich, tragic tale. The novel is the story of a gorgeous, intelligent and sometimes naive woman who is precariously perched on high society's ladder in early 20th-century New York.

I have read The House of Mirth half a dozen times, and I am always saddened to see Lily alone, without parents or friends she can trust. I am angered that she does not see the good friend and mate her friend Selden could be, just because he lacks a grand income. Why is this charming woman so bad at making decisions that are in her self-interest?

Lily wants happiness like all young adults starting out in life; she also wants a lot of money. So, she rejects some viable options, takes advice from the wrong people, and does not listen to her heart.

Part of Wharton's achievement is that she makes us care for Lily, who is trapped in her times but in herself as well. I respect Lily's integrity, drive, honesty and character, but I am angered and saddened by her materialism, her social game-playing and acquiescence to being an accessory or an ornament.

I want to reach out and advise and help her. I'd want Lily to learn about what one can control in life and what one cannot (like wanting it all and wanting it now). I'd like to change her values so that simplicity and quality over quantity rule her desires and needs.

I'd want Lily Bart to work on the magical "know thyself" so that she could truly learn from her mistakes and understand the meaning of inner versus outer beauty. I'd like her to understand the value of cultivating true friendship and love, and to find a joie de vivre where balance and happiness are the main ingredients to satisfy body and mind.

Discovering The House of Mirth helped me understand what I wanted from life. Most of all, the novel is a timeless guidebook to discovering the kind of values I've embraced. Rereading it now gives me added pleasures. Merci, Edith Wharton.

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

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Mireille Guiliano