The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
That's how I felt when I reached the end of this book.
I read more than one Wharton title in 2008, and had this book in progress as the new year began. Most of it I listened to at Librivox, but I read the last five chapters myself. Edith Wharton is one of those 20th century authors I've neglected for years, but lately I've reached a point from which I suddenly "get" this literature, which is very much a precursor of the post-modern literature of our own time. (I've read more of that than the earlier 20th century literature, and perhaps that is why I can understand it better now.)
The reader for the book is top-notch, but I found myself dreading each chapter. I felt as if I were watching an accident that I could foresee, but not prevent. Lily Bart is the butterfly-creature of American Victorian Society, in New York. She was raised in luxury and comfort, and despite the loss of both her parents and their fortune, she cannot reconcile herself to any other kind of life. After all, she merely has to marry a wealthy a man, and with her beauty and charm, she has no trouble attracting the attention of eligible suitors.
But somewhere underneath it all, Lily Bart has finer feelings and better principles--undefined, undeveloped, and too fragile to set her feet on another path--strong enough only to always keep her back from finalizing the action she has determined to take. So, suitor after suitor slips away, until Lily approaches her 30th year--a single "girl" still, finding it harder and harder to play her self-chosen role.
It was actually painful to watch Lily lose the things she thought she cared for, while gaining nothing of value in their place, until it was too late for either. The ending of the story was not what I anticipated, but although it was not what I feared for her, it was tragic.
I would be interested to read and learn more about Edith Wharton, as I really know nothing at all about her personal life. What perversity of soul would make an author name a book like this "The House of Mirth?"
But, lest I finish with a wrong impression, I must say that the writing is beautiful--achingly compelling and wistful. I was never able to despise Lily, even when she despised herself. I do intend to read more by this author, although not, perhaps, right away.
If, and only if, you have read the book, you might find this article interesting. It explains a recent letter that came to light, which may have had a bearing on explaining the ambiguous ending of the book. I also discovered that there is a connection between Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss, another author I admire and have read recently.