Well over a year ago, on a dreary winter evening, I was lying in bed listening to a Radio 4 serialisation of The Reef. At that point, my only acquaintance with Edith Wharton had been reading The House of Mirth as a teenager and being profoundly struck by its brilliance, and I expected the same of The Reef. I had waited eagerly for the serialisation to start, and began listening with high hopes. However, my brain struggles with audio books, and despite the very earnest narrator and initially intriguing plot, I found my attention wandering to how badly I needed to hoover my bedroom carpet, whether I had enough cereal left for my breakfast and what emails I needed to send at work the next day. In the face of such pressing concerns, The Reef became background noise, and by the end of the first half hour segment, I realised I had taken in nothing whatsoever. Therefore I abandoned my well intentioned plans to listen to The Reef, and planned on reading it instead, but as so often happens, life and other books got in the way until dear Heather sent me a copy of The Reef a few weeks ago.
I have to say this first; I didn’t love it. I hate writing negative reviews, but this did disappoint me, as I know how brilliant Edith Wharton can be. As one would expect, it’s beautifully written, has fantastically portrayed characters and a great deal of emotion oozing from the pages, but there just wasn’t a story. I kept waiting for it to kick in, but I never felt that it truly did. The basic plot revolves around George Darrow, an American working for the Embassy in London, and his relationship with the widowed Anna Leath, his true love who married someone else several years previously. I assume we’re supposed to be enamoured by these two and long for them to find their happiness together at last, but I wasn’t, which meant the novel was rather lost on me.
As the novel opens, George is on the docks waiting for the steamer to France to go and see Anna for the first time in years. He is furious to receive a last minute telegram from her, with no explanation, telling him not to come for another two weeks. It is dark, raining relentlessly, George’s trunk is already stowed and he is confused and frustrated about Anna’s seeming indifference. In the midst of this mental perturbation, George bumps into a ravishing young woman he vaguely recognises who is also boarding the steamer, and is struggling with her umbrella and packages. Like every gallant gentleman in turn of the century London would, he helps the young woman, and together they board the steamer to Paris. On board, George finds himself enchanted by this beauty, who goes by the name of Sophy Viner. She is vibrant, enthusiastic and brimming with life, and her difficult and often humiliating existence as a dependant on others, and her current predicament of having been recently sacked by her employer, gives her a charming vulnerability that George, despite his feelings for Anna, finds irresistible.
On landing in Paris, it transpires that the friends Sophy was hoping to take refuge with while she pursued her dreams of a career on the stage have left the city in a hurry and did not get Sophy’s letter telling them she was coming. With nowhere to go, George suggests that Sophy takes a room in his hotel. Over the next few days the pair spend all their time together, with George treating the enraptured Sophy to trips to her beloved theatre, to sumptuous meals and lovely walks around the city. Anna’s continued silence and Sophy’s charm work together to make George doubt Anna’s feelings for him, and in a moment of passion, he and Sophy take their relationship a step too far, before parting ways.
We then fast forward a few months to find George at Givre, Anna’s French country home, which she shares with her twenty something stepson Owen, her mother in law and her daughter. George and Anna are very much in love and delighted to finally be together after so many years of loving one another from afar. However, what neither have reckoned upon is that Anna’s young daughter’s new governess is none other than Sophy Viner, whose acting ambitions didn’t come to fruition, and what is more, she is engaged to Owen. Sophy and George’s awkwardness around each other soon gets noticed, and the consequences of one foolish night look set to destroy two previously happy pairings, as secrets and lies encircle the couples, and both Owen and Anna wonder whether they have ever truly known their intended spouses.
That’s it. The vast majority of the book follows on from there with everyone behaving hysterically over what was essentially a one night stand, and the story never develops into anything. Anna’s attitude, in particular, was absurd. I wanted to step inside of the pages, plant my hands on my hips, and say ‘For goodness’ sake! He’s 38 years old! Did you seriously expect him to never have been with another woman?! You were the one who married someone else anyway! Stop being so ridiculous!’. I can normally suspend my disbelief when it comes to period novels with plots that hinge around no longer relevant societal expectations, but in this case, the level of melodrama over something that had happened when neither party were in a relationship with anyone else made absolutely no sense to me. Even considering the historical context, it just didn’t constitute a convincing or compelling plot. I couldn’t believe that anyone would be that upset about the fact that their intended had been with someone else before them; unless you meet when you’re 16, the chances are that your partner will have had a past you don’t know about, and what’s wrong with that?!
The whole point of the novel is that we readers are supposed to empathise with the characters and their ethical dilemmas over the whole situation, but I didn’t, at all, apart from with poor Sophy, whose sufferings due to that awful soul destroyer, unrequited love, were truly heartrending. Aside from Sophy, whose life would have made a much more interesting focus than the drippy Anna, they were all being so ridiculous that I wanted to throw the book at the wall by the end. As much as I love Edith and how beautifully evocative her writing is, The Reef fell very short of being a good novel, I’m afraid to say. She does say some interesting things about fidelity, and trust, and how much two human beings can ever really know and be sure of one another, but they weren’t enough to resuscitate what was always going to be a thin plot. I think I’ll stick to the New York novels in the future.