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The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton

2010/08/16

A young girl, trying to get in with the right crowd, worrying about her clothes, exasperated with her parents who refused to give her money for going out, gossiping with and about the latest scandals — sounds like a typical teen novel, right? Now consider that this novel was written and published nearly a century ago, and then consider whether teens today have really changed all that much.

Undine Spragg and her parents have come to New York City from the small town of Apex; Undine intends to have as much fun as possible heedless of expense, while her parents are hoping more conservatively for their daughter to make a good match. As the novel opens, Undine is fretting over a note from the sister of a “little fellow” in whom she has no interest — until she discovers that Ralph Marvell is a member of one of the first families of New York society. This seemingly insignificant young man will eventually become Undine’s husband, and is one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire novel, along with Mr. and Mrs. Spragg, for Undine does not mature gracefully, or perhaps at all throughout.

Despite its age, readers will find timeless characters in this novel. For instance, anyone who has dealt with strong-willed children or teens will recognize this right away: Undine had “two ways of getting things out of [her father] against his principles; the tender wheedling way, and the harsh-lipped and cold… as a child [her parents] had admired her assertiveness, had made Apex ring with their boasts of it; but it had long since cowed Mrs. Spragg, and it was beginning to frighten her husband.” Though originally published in 1913, Edith Wharton’s novel about the spoiled daughter of well-meaning parents hoping to make a foray into New York Society will still ring true amongst those who work with adolescents and young adults, who despite all the years between, still often long for glamor and adventure regardless of society and financial barriers.

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