A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

December 9, 2014 | 1 book mentioned 14 2 min read

Publishing a book feels a little like a birthday. It lasts for longer than a day, but it’s wonderful and exciting and weird like a birthday is. (Am I the only one who spends her entire birthday thinking, Today is my birthday! Today? Today! Birthday? Birthday!). This year was just that for me,  wonderful, exciting, and weird, especially the summer, when it seemed all I did was travel, talk to strangers about my book, and sleep in hotel rooms (which always made me think of “Nantucket” by William Carlos Williams: “– And the immaculate white bed.”)

coverBefore my summer publication madness, before I did my reading in airplanes and various Panera locations and cheesy hotel bars, I had one particular experience with a book that filled my soul with fizz and made me feel alive in that way that only reading a great book can. I was at Ucross, the beautiful writing retreat in Wyoming, and between writing and weeping about writing, I sank into a green marshmallow-of-a-couch and began The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.

Edith Wharton! Edith Wharton! Edith! Wharton!

coverI read and liked The Age of Innocence years ago, but that didn’t prepare me for the love I would feel for this novel.  Wharton’s heroine Lily Bart, simultaneously oblivious and wise, is one of the most compelling and complicated characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I pity and admire the way Miss Bart wields the power of her own beauty: she exploits her own magnetism, and it’s her own magnetism, or her confidence in that magnetism, that ruins her. Lily just wants to be free to live a grand, unfettered life, but she is a single woman in late 19th-century New York and her opportunities are limited (credit wendy here). She’s also a self-absorbed and entitled bitch. God, I love her. I also love Wharton’s assured and wise prose:

Lily had no heart to lean on. Her relation to her aunt was as superficial as that of chance lodgers who pass on the stairs. But even had the two been in closer contact, it was impossible to think of Mrs. Peniston’s mind as offering shelter or comprehension to such misery as Lily’s. As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.

See what I mean? Say it with me now: Edith! Wharton!

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. “She’s also a self-absorbed and entitled bitch. God I love her!”

    Me too! — Lily Bart is everything you say and unforgettable. I have never understood the preference for Age of Innocence. It’s like choosing Northanger Abbey over Emma. I need to reread this — thanks for this great shout-out to Lily (and Edith).

  2. I liked California a great deal and appreciate Edan’s work on here, but I wish every piece she wrote for The Millions in the past 10 months didn’t have to contain some not so subtle allusion to the publication of California. Call it jealousy, call it whatever. I’m usually excited to read her stuff on here, but I find the focus of her Millions work this year increasingly cloying. It feels as though her criticism and her commentary must always double as guerilla advertising for her book. Garth’s Year in Reading makes passing reference to City on Fire, but, while he hasn’t been as prolific as Edan this past year, he’s been able to compartmentalize better. In the future, I’d like to hear from Edan the Critic, not Edan the Salesperson.

  3. Thanks for the feedback, Anonymous (though why not write your name?).

    I never thought of my work here as guerilla advertising, and my intention is not to sell more copies of my book–I am sorry if it seems that way to you. (Also, it seems that you think my goal is pretty transparent, so maybe it seems more like sponsored content, eh?)

    Almost all of my work on The Millions has been about my own personal reading and writing life–whether that’s when I was a bookseller, or when I was teaching writing more regularly, or when I was trying (and failing) to sell a book, or when I was a published writer. I’m sorry if that approach has begun to seem cloying to you. I have written very little for this site since my book came out and when I did, yes, it was about said book and the publishing industry–I wanted to shed light on how a book gets made because I thought the information would be useful and interesting, and it seemed natural given that I always write about what’s on my mind and what I experience. (And I also did a thing with Bill Morris where we talked to each other about being authors–that was an idea Max pitched us, and we both liked it; Bill, too, has been publishing stories about his experience as an author lately–and I love to read them, especially the one about his audio book.)

    I love and deeply admire Garth’s work on The Millions, but he doesn’t often (ever?) write autobiographical essays on the site, so I wouldn’t expect him to reference his own publishing experiences in his Year in Reading piece. Other staff writers, like me, and my personal hero, Lydia Kiesling, do write with a more autobiographical focus so that angle makes sense to me. (See Lydia’s wonderful Year in Reading for details on her pregnancy, for instance.)

    I use The Millions as a way to communicate to the outside world all the questions that have been obsessing me lately. Thankfully, to you and me both, I don’t have a book coming out next year so that won’t be a topic I write about.

    Anyway, thanks for the feedback and thanks for reading my work–be it here or my fiction. I appreciate it.

  4. I reread The House of Mirth this summer, while going through a break-up and dealing with the fact that I was working a job that I loved but that wasn’t paying any of the bills—obviously, Lily Bart resonated with me even more than she had the first time around, when I was in college and being poor but pretty was the norm.

    Having so recently read it, I kind of take offense to calling Ms. Bart an “entitled bitch.” First of all, she isn’t entitled, really, at all. In comparison to me and most people, yes. But in comparison to her peers, she is desolate and desperate. She is a burden. She is a valueless marriage, excepting her beauty. She is disowned and disinherited by her family. Her debts prevent her from living the life she desires. How, exactly, does that add up to entitlement? And when did having principles start making us bitches?

    That said, Lily Bart is a lover and a dreamer, yet she is calculating. She knows exactly what she must do to achieve the lifestyle she desires, and yet, she avoids following through with those actions every single time, and throws away endless opportunities. Should we be true to ourselves, or should we do what society expects of us? Mrs. Bertha Dorset is the true “entitled bitch” of this story. Lily is sooooo much more than that. She wants what Bertha has; she wants to be that self-same “entitled bitch,” but she has not the heart to do it. What this book taught me anew in 2014 is that I must follow my heart, even if to the ends that Lily met. THAT is the unspoken word.

  5. @Christine, you do express the more subtle aspects of HOM — I had forgotten how much Lily would LIKE to achieve the expected things but has too much delicacy or refinement to cave; as you say, she “. . .is a lover and a dreamer , yet she is calculating,” and the best part of herself is what ultimately destroys her.

    I read this so long ago, in college, and it seemed the most heart-breaking novel I had ever read. Thank you reminding me that I really do need to reread this. Good luck to you — May you successfully follow your heart!

  6. @Christine

    Adding my own tinny voice to @priskill, wonderfully perceptive observations. A lost soul, indeed.

    Moe Murph
    (To all who come here to scold, cajole, and engage in grievous pettifoggery — no, “tinny” is NOT a typo!)

  7. Christine, I totally agree that, yes, Lily Bart is admirable for the way she holds onto her principles and her desires despite her financial situation and the limited choices for women at that time. It was harrowing and inspiring each time she rejected an opportunity to get out of financial hardship!

    At the same time, what made this novel so powerful for me–and what makes it a real magic trick of a book–is that Lily is also warped by her own beauty, or her understanding that others believe she is beautiful. I do think there’s a sense of entitlement about her. For instance she believes she deserves a more fabulous life than, say, her unmarried friend (cousin?), because she is pretty. She sees herself at the center of a magical, rich life. Yes, she dares to want more, and that is inspiring, but she also, for instance, doesn’t dare cry for not wanting to have to powder her nose.

    Gah, I love this book and now I just want to re-read it!

  8. @Edan @Chrisine @Priskill

    On the other hand, Wharton’s Undine Spragg (“The Custom of the County”) — now there’s an entitled vixen for you!

  9. “Lily is warped by her own beauty.” In a nutshell! You feel she is trapped and victimized even as she flaunts her double-edged gift.

    @Moe Murph — I hear your untinny voice and now I am running out for Custom of the Country — entitled vixens ahoy! I trust your excellent taste!

  10. I read The Custom of the Country a few months after reading The House of Mirth and also loved it. Also, what a name: UNDINE SPRAGG!

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