Recent Reads – Joan Didion and Edith Wharton, two of my favourite writers

Time for another couple of mini reviews from me – in this instance focusing on books by two of my favourite writers, Joan Didion and Edith Wharton. (It’s the turn of the Americans today.)

The White Album by Joan Didion (1979)

In many ways, this reads like a companion piece to (or a continuation of) Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of Didion’s essays published in 1968. Here we have another volume of non-fiction pieces exploring various events and reflections in the author’s life during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, all expressed in Didion’s effortlessly cool and erudite style. Like the essays in Slouching, most of these pieces had previously appeared in journals/magazines before being collected together in one volume.

As I’ve already written at length about Didion’s non-fiction in my review of Slouching, I’m not planning to go into a lot of detail about the twenty essays in The White Album; instead my aim is to give you a brief flavour of the book, mainly by way of a couple of quotes that I noted while I was reading the collection.

The essays included here cover a fairly diverse range of topics from Georgia O’Keeffe’s artworks to Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s former home in California to a recording session with The Doors. Running through many of these snapshots is a sense of social fragmentation and disintegration, a deep-rooted feeling of unease that seems to have characterised Didion’s life, reflecting both her own state of mind and her view of the broader cultural environment in California at the time. In the following passage – taken from the opening piece, The White Album – Didion is reflecting on the mood in LA in the summer of 1969, just before the brutal murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive.

I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town. There were rumours. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of “sin”—this sense that it was possible to go “too far,” and that many people were doing it—was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. (pp. 41-42)

While Didion is always clear-eyes and insightful, in some respects she is at her best and most affecting when her reflections touch on the personal, the events and circumstances which have had a profound impact on her own life and ability to function. She writes openly about her relationship with migraine, a debilitating condition she has learned to accept and cope with in spite of its intensity and frequency. There is also the time when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a moment that pulls into focus her own vulnerability and sense of mortality.

In a few lines of dialogue in a neurologist’s office in Beverley Hills, the improbable had become the probable, the norm: things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to me. I could be struck by lightning, could dare to eat a peach and be poisoned by the cyanide in the stone. The startling fact was this: my body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind. “Lead a simple life,” the neurologist advised. “Not that it makes any difference we know about.” In other words it was another story without a narrative. (p. 47)

Through these highly compelling essays, Didion seems to be saying that there is little use in us trying to look for too much reason or narrative in our lives as reality simply doesn’t operate that way – sometimes we just have to accept the randomness of events or developments however unsettling that may be.

Summer by Edith Wharton (1917)

Described by some as a companion piece to Ethan Frome (reviewed here by Max of Pechorin’s Journal), Edith Wharton’s Summer is a powerful novel set in North Dormer, a small, insular village in the New England region of America. While I didn’t love it quite as much as Ethan, I did like it a lot.

The story focuses on Charity Royall, an impulsive and independently-minded young woman who lives with her guardian and widower, the dour and surly Lawyer Royall. As a young child, Charity was rescued from a bleak life with a group of outcasts from the nearby Mountain, a structure whose ominous presence looms large over North Dormer and Charity’s existence there. Charity feels little affection or gratitude towards Lawyer Royall for his earlier actions; if anything, she resents being constantly reminded of the need to be grateful to her guardian for the lifestyle he has provided, away from the feral nature of the Mountain community. Even her name is a reflection of her questionable status in society, a signal of her reliance on the benevolence of other, more ‘rightful’ citizens in the village.

Yet Charity Royall had always been told that she ought to consider it a privilege that her lot had been cast in North Dormer. She knew that, compared to the place she had come from, North Dormer represented all the blessings of the most refined civilisation. Everyone in the place had told her so ever since she had been brought there as a child. (p. 5)

Thankfully, Charity has already managed to thwart a sexual advance and proposal of marriage from Lawyer Royall, thereby asserting herself as a strong presence in the red house, the home they share in North Dormer.

Charity longs to escape from the boredom and constraints of her drab life in the watchful village, her only respite being a part-time job in the deathly quiet memorial library where she hopes to earn enough money to strike out on her own. So, when the handsome and kindly architect, Lucius Harney comes to town to make a study of the local buildings, young Charity’s passions and restless nature are promptly aroused.

What follows is a sequence of encounters in which Charity wrestles with her feelings for Lucius, an educated man who belongs to a completely different social class from her own. There is a sense of blossoming and awakening in Charity as her relationship with Lucius develops and deepens with each additional meeting, particularly once it is agreed that she will act as his guide.

In addition to the sense of emotional growth described above, the novel also touches on themes of identity, belonging, society’s expectations of women, and the difficulties of bridging a class divide – especially given the relevant period and setting. While I don’t want to say too much about the plot, there is a certain inevitability to the novel’s narrative arc as the story reaches its poignant conclusion. Nevertheless, there are a few glimmers of hope towards the end, particularly once Lawyer Royall is revealed as being somewhat more sympathetic and compassionate than might appear at first sight.

The novel also contains some beautiful descriptive passages, fragments that act as reflections of Charity’s fondness for the open landscape and natural world. I’ll finish up with one of these, but there are many more to be found in the book itself.

The air was cool and clear, with the autumnal sparkle that a north wind brings to the hills in early summer, and the night had been so still that the dew hung on everything, not as a lingering moisture, but in beads that glittered like diamonds on the ferns and grasses. (p. 40)

The White Album is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Summer by Oxford World’s Classics; my thanks to the publisher for the copy of Summer.

Ali and Simon have also reviewed Summer – just follow the links if you’d like to read their reviews.

38 thoughts on “Recent Reads – Joan Didion and Edith Wharton, two of my favourite writers

  1. Tredynas Days

    I’ve never got round to Joan Didion’s essays. Must give her a try. Thanks for the link to my post on Summer ; I also did one on Ethan Frome – a more melodramatic novel, set in winter mostly- bleaker (though Summer isn’t all sunshine). Charity is a spirited, complex character

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      For Didion’s non-fiction, I would probably suggest Slouching Towards Bethlehem over this collection, although there’s not a lot in it as both are very good.

      Ethan Frome is one of my all-time favourite novels (I think I may have read it three times over the years, certainly twice.) It’s one of those rare books that really stands up to being read on multiple occasions, especially during winter.

  2. Brian Joseph

    I more give Summer a try. It does sound in some ways like Ethan Frome more so then offer Wharton works that I hand read. Thanks for posting the quotation. Whaton’s Prose are really something special.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It does feel much closer to Ethan Frome than any of her society novels (mind you, I’ve only read The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, so there may be others that bear some resemblance to Ethan). Anyway, I think you’d like it, mainly for the psychological insight into the characters and the social context of the narrative. It’s not as intense or dramatic as Ethan, but still a very good book.

  3. bookbii

    Lovely reviews Jacqui. I also love Didion. Have you seen the documentary of her life on Netflix? It’s called The Centre Will Not Hold. If not, it’s definitely worth a watch. She led a fascinating life.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. No, I haven’t seen that documentary, but your comments have reminded me that someone else recommended it to me on Twitter several months ago (possibly around the time the film was released). I don’t have access to Netflix, but I’ll try to track it down via another route. Fingers crossed. I loved her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, such a powerful, thoughtful book.

  4. Maureen Murphy

    I really love the combination here, JacquiWine! When I think of these authors, I think of a similarity in that both had to make their through a harsh environment, and had great resilence, plus the ability to build a protective shell around their great artistry to allow it to flourish. What empathy Wharton possessed! What skill in portraying a tragic character like Lilly Bart with such a clear but merciful eye!

  5. Maureen Murphy

    By coincidence, there is one essay writer I would love to see featured in a “Reading Week.” have you read Cynthia Ozick? Wow.

  6. Maureen Murphy

    Jacqui, will get out of the comment section in a second.. sorry about the invasion, but was able to find something about Didion from a comment of mine at “The Millions” website from a few years back. There is a guy there who is a perfectly fine fellow, but I disagree with his take on things about 98% of the time. I am including a link to his original piece, and my own comment addressing my disagreement with what I found to be an unfair characterization of her persona. Cheers!


    [“I must disagree on the summation at the top. Didion is anything but ‘cloyingly precious.’
    Elitist? High-strung? Perhaps. Cold? Sometimes. But cloying, precious, or “over refined?” I don’t see it, any more than an ill-tempered overbred champion Arabian racehorse that kicks anyone who dares enter her stall is. As for the idea of “pose,” I think her distance and coolness may spring in part from the chaos of her childhood in California, moved from place to place, the mental illness of her dad, and what I am sure was a gifted child’s preternatural intelligence and awareness of all this chaos.

    I can see that you might find the para on the gas station and her skittishness not your cup of tea, but I don’t think that is enough to begin building the foundation of the “perhaps fatal” preciousness argument.

    Will continue to look forward to your articles, Bill but must join The Loyal Opposition on this one!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hi Maureen,

      Many thanks for your sequence of comments, not a problem at all – it’s always interesting to hear your views.

      You know, I hadn’t thought about any potential connection between these two women writers, other than the fact that they both hail from the US. Edith Wharton’s personal life is not something I know a great deal about, but it sounds as if you feel there are some similarities or areas of common ground with the challenges Didion has had to face in her lifetime. That resilience you mention is certainty something I would associate with Didion. How heartbreaking it must have been for her to lose her husband so suddenly, followed by her adopted daughter not long afterwards. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult that must have been for her to come to terms with or cope with (I’m not sure one can ever come to terms with something as devastating as that).

      As for the idea that Didion’s writing can be cloyingly precious, I don’t see that either. Her tone can be analytical and detached at times, but then maybe it needs to be to bring a degree of objectivity to her observations? Anyway, I don’t feel it comes across as either precious or cloying? Each to their own opinion, I guess!

      Re: Cynthia Ozick, I haven’t read her at all. I do recall her name cropping up in one or two articles a few years back, but that’s pretty much all I know. It sounds as if you rate her very highly. (PS I don’t want to sign up to any *new* writers right now, as I’m really trying to focus on reading those in my current TBR…but that may change at some point in the future. :) )

  7. heavenali

    Lovely post, I so enjoyed Summer, a very evocative novel. I still have Didion’s Slouching toward Bethlehem tbr, I’m looking forward to it, as I really like the sound of her writing.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. Yes, very evocative – I love the way Wharton writes about the landscape in these New England books. While it doesn’t have the same intensity or brutality as Ethan Frome, it seems to share something of its passion.

      The Didion is excellent, definitely something to look forward to. I really hope you enjoy it.

  8. Scott W.

    I’m with you on preferring Slouching over The White Album, but why not both? I’ve read the former several times, but should revisit the latter sometime soon.

    I read Summer too many summers ago, but recall liking it a great deal – nice to think of it as a seasonal companion to wintry Ethan From

    And many thanks to Maureen above for jumping all over that “cloyingly precious” comment about Didion. Good grief. What book did that reviewer actually read?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s that opening essay from Slouching, Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, that really sticks in my mind. Such a haunting piece of writing, all the more so for its grounding in real-life events. I’m glad to hear that you disagree with that description of Didion’s prose too. Her work always seems so thoughtful to me – precise and insightful, yes, but never precious. I’ll have to take a closer look at that link to check which book the person in question was reading!

      Oh, and Summer was lovely. I read it on a sunny day in September, and it proved a fine match for the turn of the seasons.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Anne. Summer doesn’t appear to be as widely read as some of Wharton’s other works – a pity really as it’s such an impressive little book.

  9. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post Jacqui and such an interesting pairing – I never would have put the two together, though I have read both. I think Didion is such a good writer, and I take on board the coolness and distance there can be in her writing. I think that’s often necessary with the subject matter she covers. However, that coolness is not there in her personal memoirs, which are heart-wrenching. As for Wharton, I have Ethan Frome though I’ve not yet had the courage to read it to the end as I’m terrified about how sad the ending will be. Maybe I should take a courage pill and read it and Summer in one sitting! :D

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well tbh, the pairing is more by chance than design! I just happened to be reading both of them at around the same time, hence the combined post. Plus I’ve written about both of these writers in the past, so there wasn’t a lot I could say without repeating myself (especially in the case of Didion’s essays).

      Yes, I’m completely with you on the coolness and sense of distance in Didion’s writing, which I view as a positive (akin to a sense of objectivity) given the nature of topics she writes about. While I agree that her memoirs are heartbreaking, I think some readers find her sense of precision and containment unsettling – hence the potential for accusations of coldness. As I said above, I don’t see that myself (and clearly neither do you, which is a relief). Rather, I find her memoirs incredibly moving, all the more so for the emotional honesty and openness she shows without resorting to hysteria or self-pity.

      Ethan Frome is marvellous, but the ending is not the softest! What a terrific book, though – it’s actually one of my all-time favourites. I love it so much that I could never write about it!

      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        I think you’re spot on there, Jacqui – her honesty is perhaps unusual and I suspect people often misunderstand it. But I agree with you about how good her writing is.

        As for Ethan Frome – that’s high praise indeed. I know what you mean about loving a book that much – it’s sometimes hard to avoid just saying “it’s brilliant! Read it!” when faced with writing about your favourites! :D

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Absolutely. It’s hard to be objective when you’re so emotionally attached to a particular book. Anyway, I really would encourage you to bite the bullet with Ethan Frome – it’s the prefect winter read. :)

  10. Grier

    I’ve only read Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking by Didion and want to read some of her older work. I also rate Ethan Frome very highly. I read Summer quite a few years ago and would like to revisit it. Terrific reviews!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I loved The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, both of which felt so profoundly moving and humane. Her earlier work is a little different in style, perhaps more detached because the subject matter is, in most cases, less directly personal. Still very good though, and definitely worth reading.

      Ethan Frome is such a great novel – it doesn’t get much better than Wharton when she’s on top form.

  11. madamebibilophile

    Lovely post Jacqui! I haven’t read Wharton in years but I have House of Mirth and The Children in the TBR, I must dig them out.

    I really like that Didion quote ‘Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable.’ We tend to think of the 1960s as free-thinking libertarianism, but I suspect it was much more complex.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I love The House of Mirth! Such a complex and forensic portrayal of the hypocrisies of a judgemental society. It really is worth making the time to return to Wharton if you can.

      As for the Didion, that’s a really interesting observation about our perceptions of the 1960s as a time of freedom and liberation. What’s striking about this collection (and its predecessor, Slouching Towards Bethlehem) is the deep sense of unease and uncertainty that runs through several of the essays. It can’t have been easy living in California at the time of the Tate murders, and I think that comes through in the passage above.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      While Summer isn’t quite as brutal or devastating as Ethan Frome, it does have a similar kind of feel. I think the rural setting and domestic focus play a part in this.

  12. Emma

    Didion has attended a recording session of The Doors. Now, I’m envious.
    In White Dog (1969) Romain Gary describes the same weird mood in LA among intellectuals and celebrities. Jean Seberg was involved with the Black Panthers movement and when he describes the crowd coming to their house, well, no wonder he was not happy.

    I haven’t read this Wharton but she’s a fantastic writer and I’m tempted to think that her worst is better than someone else’s best.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! What an amazing experience that must have been for her – truly magical. As for Romian Gary, I only realised fairly recently that he had been married to Jean Seberg in the 1960s, a fact that makes me even more intrigued to read him at some point. (I’m also overdue another watch of À bout de souffle as it feels like ages since I last saw it.)

      The Wharton is definitely worth reading, without a doubt. As you say, she’s a superb writer, so even a slightly less-than-stellar Wharton is still a great proposition. In some ways, I wish she’d written more novels in this vein as the way she captures the tensions and passions in these small rural communities is very striking.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Well, that would be a bit of change of scenery for you given your fondness for translated lit. In all seriousness though, I do think you should try some Wharton. Maybe Ethan Frome as a seasonal read? (Have you had any snow yet, btw? I was thinking of you when I saw the forecast this weekend!)

  13. Caroline

    I have Summer and at least one of Didion’s essay collections.
    I don’t think, judging from your review, Summer is as bleak as Ethan Frome and I’m thankful for that. I’m looking forward to reading it.
    As for the Didion, I’m likely to start with Slouching towards Bethlehem. I’d say you were more impressed with that.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, while Summer isn’t the cheeriest of reads, it’s definitely less bleak than Ethan Frome. Beautifully written, though, as one might expect with Wharton. I think you’ll like it a lot.

      Both of Didion’s essay collections are good, but Slouching is probably the better of the two. The opening essay — Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream — is so haunting, a really excellent piece of writing with a palpable sense of time and place.

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