Having read Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth, I know from personal experience that Edith Wharton was indeed a prolific and incredible author, but I knew little about her personal life or the life of her indispensable secretary, Anna Bahlmann. This novel was based on historical record, but had a life and zest of its own that compelled me to devour the book greedily. It was as if Edith was a woman frozen, who could only be thawed by the hand of one man, and unfortunately for her, that man was not her husband. Fields juxtaposes Edith’s strength and formidable character with her rising desire for a man who is clearly toying with her. She hasn’t the foresight to see that she is not his center, as he is hers.
Fullerton is a character whom I grew to love and hate at the same time. The gift of frank and raw sexuality that he imparts to Edith was invaluable, but at heart he was a womanizer with specific tastes. Edith was only one morsel on his plate, but she didn’t see this. He was a very sensual man, and it was hard for me not to connect with that aspect of his character, but he was also in many ways a derelict and a loathsome creature. Fullerton ran hot and cold to Edith’s consistency. He was aware of what he was doing yet couldn’t stop himself. I grew agitated reading about him, for he could be astonishingly cold but also maddeningly charming.
One of the foremost aspects of this book was the focus that Fields took on Anna Bahlmann’s life. She was with Edith from the time she was just a child, and grew to love her as a mother, sister and friend. Often, this meant that she put up with the childish demands that Edith placed on her while she was dangerously flailing with Fullerton. Anna was patient and long-suffering, and at times I grew very angry at Edith when she became hostile and punitive toward the only friend that was a constant in her life. Anna was completely consumed with being Edith’s helpmeet and partner. She had other opportunities, but chose to be in turns loved and banished by Edith as her moods fluctuated.
Teddy was the last piece of this puzzle. Overly and overtly fond of Anna, he played with the desire of wanting Edith to be true and steadfast to him and taking Anna as a poor second when Edith would frequently abandon him. I had an instant dislike of Teddy. What is obvious as a modern reader is that he was bipolar, but it wasn’t this that made me dislike him. It was his constant need of attention and his wheedling sorrow when he was not accommodated that kept me from connecting any positive emotion to him at all. At times very unpredictable and always needing comfort, Teddy was like a child, and it was easy to see why Edith preferred to be where her husband was not.
In many ways this book was very seductive and gratifying, but it also felt like walking through a minefield of intrepid danger and coy traps. Picking it up again and again, I felt completely immersed in Field’s world, where the outcome was not certain and everything was tense and fluid. Even readers who know nothing of Wharton and her work would have no trouble being consumed by this story, and though it was a delectable read, it was also bittersweet. A very moving look at one of the greatest known writers in the prime of her life. Highly recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.