The Reef by Edith Wharton

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.

34 comments

  1. I agree, not my favorite Wharton, but for me it did pick up after awhile and I ended up rather liking it, though I hated the ending — I”m not even sure what happened!

    And you’re so right about Anna’s hysteria about the one-night stand — it’s like Ross and Rachel on Friends — “We were ON A BREAK!!!” Obviously, rich people with no jobs have nothing better to do that sit around and stew about stuff like this. That character needed to go be a suffragette or nurse wounded soldiers or something. She had just waaay too much time on her hands!

    1. I know – ridiculous ending. I think it was showing what Sophy could become – and the sordidness of extramarital sex. A bit unnecessary I felt.

      Hahaha I did actually think of Ross and Rachel while I was reading it!! I agree heartily – Anna had far too much time to dwell on it. Talk about making mountains out of molehills!

  2. When I visit The Mount (I hope you get a chance to go…it’s in the Berkshires) I’m always struck by their display of the covers of EW’s novels — she wrote so many of them, some that you’ve probably never heard of (I hadn’t). Not necessarily saying that The Reef is in this category, but I sometimes forget that these esteemed and classic authors wrote books for money as well for art, and it’s understandable that some of them would be forgrettable.

    Of course, I’ve lost track of who and where, but someone in New York does a walking tour of EW’s New York. That’s a trail I’d lovre to follow!

    1. I am trying to organise a trip to The Mount, Audrey – hoping to make it before I go. If I don’t I shall come back in the future for a special trip. Very true – I often look for her books on ebay and find a multitude of titles I had never heard of – and yes, not all can be as good as the others.

      Oh that would be wonderful! I shall look it up!

  3. Rachel you are a pure tonic for a fairly rubbish feeling Saturday. First you come out with the genius that is “I found my attention wandering to how badly I needed to hoover my bedroom carpet, whether I had enough cereal left for my breakfast” when discussing audio books, I have been there.

    Then you come out with a situation we have all been in but probably couldnt put so well… “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!’.”

    This is why your blog is such a joy… unlike this Wharton novel.

    1. I’m sad you’re not having a good day Simon, but I’m glad I have cheered you up a little!!! Thank you for your appreciation of my strange brain – glad you share my audio book dilemma and my impatience with melodramatic women!!

      Hope you are feeling better now.

  4. I agree that THE REEF is rather a “lesser” Wharton, but I think you may be looking at the book through too much of a 21st century prism. Rather than get angry at Anna for her upset at her fiance’s lapse, think about this: Could you be married to a man knowing that he has had a relationship (no matter how brief) with your daughter-in-law? I think if you look at it like that, Anna’s response (given the time period and her social position) makes much more sense. At the time THE REEF was written, it was unthinkable for a woman who had “been on the stage” (sometimes that term was a euphemism for “loose woman”) to marry into a socially well-connected family. The fact that Sophy is unmarried but not a virgin would also put her beyond the pale.

    Wharton’s novel, SUMMER, is–in a way–the story you might be looking for when you say you think Sophy’s story would be more interesting than the one Wharton chose to write. It is told from the point of view of a working-class, unmarried, pregnant woman. I think it is better than THE REEF, although (as with THE REEF), the ending isn’t really very satisfying.

    1. Yes I know, I really couldn’t put myself in a 19th century mindset for this one. I don’t know why. I just couldn’t get past the melodrama of it all. I do see your point about her being her daughter in law, actually – I didn’t think about that aspect before so thank you for raising it – but I do still think Anna’s reaction was unnecessary, especially as Owen isn’t actually her blood relative. But still…I can see how it would be a bitter pill to swallow.

      I do need to read Summer – I’ve heard it’s very good and I would like to read a story about a ‘fallen’ woman written by Wharton – her treatment of such a character would intrigue me.

  5. One last note: I seem to recall that the marriage of the late actress Lynn Regrave broke up when she learned that her husband was the father of her daughter-in-law’s child. I wonder if anyone of the family had read THE REEF.

  6. This post exemplifies some of the many things I love about your blog; an honest and sensitive review, insights into the human psyche, humor and empathy, not to mention well written, and the springboard for intelligent dialogue between your readers.

    I’ve not read The Reef, and I’m not sure if I’ll get around to it, Rachel (though I do need to hoover my rug), but, should I, will do it with your review in mind.

    1. Oh, Penny! You are far too lovely! Thank you very much.🙂 I would definitely get to others of Wharton’s novels before you get to this one, Penny. And if you do, I hope you’ll enjoy it more than I did!

  7. Ah Rachel, I do love an honest review and I like the way you can see the novel’s strengths even while disliking it. You actually do an excellent job of making it sound interesting, despite your reservations.

    I completely agree that if characters are likeable and one can identify with them, then their dilemmas and pains feel much more poignant and important. Still, I think in real life as well as in novels people behave unreasonably. I haven’t read ‘The Reef’ but I can absolutely imagine people who would behave like Anna – who would rather project their anger onto other people than take responsibility for their own choices. (Does this make any sense in context? Because I haven’t read the novel, and you’re probably thinking, ‘But it’s nothing like that!’)

    It’s odd how a bad review from someone whose taste you admire can intrigue you enough to read a book… So I won’t be racing to read ‘The Reef’ but I will be keeping my eye open for it. Along with ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ which you have made me want to read RIGHT NOW!

    1. Yes I suppose there is an element of that in Anna – and yes, plenty of people in real life do behave totally unreasonably and I can’t cope with them either! The characters just annoyed me to the point where I couldn’t enjoy the novel because of it and that rarely happens to me, I must say. It was quite disappointing!

      Well I am glad I haven’t put you off – it’s still an interesting book in its own way but not Wharton’s strongest, that’s for sure. Oh you should definitely read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn RIGHT NOW – a spectacular book!!

  8. I love your description of the way your mind drifts while listening to books on tape. I have the same problem and envy people who can listen and knit or drive or do almost anything else. I’ve tried listening in the bath or in bed, but those usually don’t turn out well either. I can DO more than one thing at a time, but I can’t enjoy a book and do anything else. Reading is best for me.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who is a drifter, Joan! It annoyes me no end that I can’t multitask like that, but I really can’t – listening to people is fine but to audiobooks – absolutely not. I’m away with the faiires! I just prefer the physical process of reading I think, and if that’s what works then that’s what works!

  9. I have read quite a bit of Wharton’s cannon, but not this one, although likely I will at some point. I am glad to see that I am not the only one who can’t stay focused when it comes to audiobooks!

    1. It’s worth reading at some point, Lola, but I wouldn’t rush to it. There are plenty better. Yes – there are lots of us it seems! Audio books certainly aren’t for everyone!

  10. I listened to that Radio 4 production and was just as irritated. Makes you wonder how these things are chosen for broadcasting. (I’ve also been listening to Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus and wondering why). The rest of Edith W’s books make us forget the occasional ‘failure’, don’t they? I think she’s allowed this one.

    Audio books tend to send me off to sleep if I close my eyes. Or, not sleep exactly but a sort of reverie takes over. But strangely, I can do all sorts of exacting tasks while also concentrating on a play on radio without missing anything.

    And isn’t it marvellous how reading a ‘real’ book, the world goes away and all sorts of noises and distractions are blanked out? Hmmm. Mystery.

    1. Glad I wasn’t the only one, Chrissy! I can allow her The Reef when I consider that she gave me the joy of The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth…she can’t get it right all the time!

      Yes, I completely go off on a reverie…it’s the same with anything I am just listening to. I need a visual to keep me focused I think.

      Yes! My mum used to go mad at me when I was younger as I just zoned everything out when I read!

  11. I hope you do get to go to Edith Wharton’s home before you return to England. It’s beautiful, with gorgeous gardens, and western Massachusetts is terrific, lots to see, very pretty.

    By the way, I like the new picture on your blog heading.

    1. So do I Joan. I definitely want to make it a priority but it just depends on whether I can get there – having no transport makes these things harder.

      Thank you – it is helping with my current homesickness!

  12. Interesting. I am currently reading ‘The House of Mirth’ and being profoundly struck by its brilliance. Nina Bawden, who wrote the introduction to my copy and who is a wise woman with many fine children’s books to her name, does say that it is Wharton’s best though. Always a danger starting with an author’s best, everything else is inevitably disappointing. X

    1. Oooh, you lucky thing – such a brilliant book. I love Nina Bawden as well – who could ever forget Carrie’s War?! Or The Peppermint Pig!

      I would actually say that The Age of Innocence is slightly better – so you know you still have that to look forward to! x

    2. Have no worries. Edith wrote so many books I can’t even remember all the ones I already read. House of Mirth is her finest, in my mind. But Custom of the Country, The Buccaneers, Summer and so many others are also great novels. Age of Innocence is also one of her most popular novels–not my favorite, but I still enjoyed it. I also strongly recommend her autobiography A Backward Glance.

  13. Hello. I’m new. I think that this is Wharton’s most accomplished novel. My favourite is ‘The House of Mirth’ but I understand the frustration that many readers have concerning the plot of ‘The Reef’. However, Wharton’s concern in this novel is not the plot as such but the exploration of the interior life of the characters. This is innovative in terms of the narrative practice of the period and very ‘Jamesion’ in its approach – so much so, that Henry James said it was his favourite novel.

    1. Hello! Welcome! That’s a really interesting take on The Reef and I had no idea James said that. However I do not get on with Henry James at all so perhaps that’s why The Reef didn’t work for me!

    2. I also love this book. It strikes me as being another look at the sort of failure to connect we previously saw with Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden in The House of Mirth. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is that although Anna’s life initially seems closer to that of Wharton, Sophy Viner’s affair with Darrow is very closely modelled on Wharton’s affair with Morton Fullerton. That suggests to me that both Anna and Sophy are aspects of Edith Wharton: Anna is drawn from woman who made the passionless marriage to Teddy and Sophy the naive, but more fulfilled, woman who fell for the lying Fullerton but at least was able to take a sexual chance. The “reef”, a word that doesn’t appear even once in the novel outside the title, is the thing that Anna keeps tripping over—her inability, as you note in your review, to face up to realities of human sexuality and the ways it plays out in relationships between men and women. I suspect the dividing line between those of us who love the novel and those who do not is how much we care about that deep psychology as we don’t get the melodramatic pay off as we do with Lily Bart’s dramatic fall from grace and death in the earlier work. The consequence for Anna Leath is not that she kills herself but that she simply has to live with her failure. That is less dramatic but I think a more profound ending. Wharton lays her soul bare in this novel in a way she does in no other.

  14. I came across your very interesting discussion after reading The Reef myself. I think what’s important here isn’t Anna’s shock at the affair, but her discoveries about love. My response is a bit too long to post here, but if you are interested in another take on it, you can read my full review on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/361240419
    Thanks to Rachel for encouraging me to post this link.

  15. While I agree this isn’t her best novel, I saw a different meaning in the text. To me, it wasn’t so much about the outward plot of their love triangle. It was a commentary and question about human nature and character. Anna sees herself as modern and longing to be free from the social norms and traditions, but her philosophy is put to the test when faced with the reality of the situation. She’s forced to look deeper into not only others’ characters and weaknesses, but her own. Her feelings towards Darrow in the wake of her rude awakening was a combination of aversion to his actions as well as a distrust of his words, feelings and intentions. But she still loves Darrow, and has no courage for her convictions. She knows that her partial happiness is the most she can hope for. She’s miserable at the thought of living without him–or possibly of losing him to Sophy Viner–but at the same time she can no longer fully trust him. She wants to give him up, thinking it the right thing to do for her step-son and daughter, and she knows that any happiness owed to Darrow sacrifices the happiness of her children. But Anna knows she’s powerless. Unlike Sophy Viner, who could sacrifice her own happiness for that of others and for integrity of character, Anna is weak, and gives in to romantic impulse, and she knows it. In some ways, she’s less qualified for Darrow than Sophy is, for these reasons alone. Sophy Viner represents the being inside Anna that she believed she was and desires to be. This book isn’t just a love story; it’s about the human condition. I think it would make a very interesting literary study.

    1. Well Michelle, you’ve made me think about it in a different way, so thank you. I don’t think it will ever be my favourite Wharton, but maybe one day I will come back to it and be able to appreciate it on the same level as you. What a wonderful analysis!

  16. For me, it wasn’t that it lacked story; it lacked heart! I’m curious to read about Sophy being noble and showing integrity – I almost feel like I read a different book entirely! I thought she came across as manipulative and selfish.

    I suspect this is a book I will have to reread at some point🙂

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