This Pulitzer Prize winner is set in New York, circa 1870. It tells of the manners and customs of elite New York that holds fast to its notions of nobility and lineage. The narrative flows with a languid ease. The tale of the meeting and separation of two freethinkers - freethinkers bound by habit and by kindness to almost-conventional lives - blossoms slowly and deliberately in the readers imagination. Never an unnecessary break in the action, never a hurried paragraph. Like other American storytellers, Wharton feels strangely 'light', not a strain on the reading eye that a British author of the time is likely to have been. The vocabulary is more familiar, the manner of telling more straightforward, perhaps? Whatever the reason, this delectable story is told simply with little pretentious sentiment and just a little romance. The carefully-guarded conversation between the affianced couple, when it becomes gradually clear that there is another woman in the man's heart, is superbly constructed - as a subtle, skillful fencing that leaves both protagonists room to manouevre and hold onto the masks that decency demands and, yet, draw blood.
Convention and form shatter in an inexplicable last chapter. The sudden jump in time and the explosion of change demand it. The son's generation has broken away entirely from the conventions that bound the father and the world seems more open, more tolerant. The taut and delicate ending jars just a little with all that has gone before - the narrative moves far swifter in denouement, than in the unfolding of the tale.
Good news: It's out of copyright and you can read it online here.
P.S. Reading some of the plot synopses of this novel online, I am beginning to wonder if reviewers still cling to the moralities and vocabularies of the early 1900s. The woman protagonist is referred to as a 'woman plagued with the whiff of scandal'. 'Whiff of scandal'? Welcome to the future already.