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The Reef by Edith Wharton

The Reef (1912)

by Edith Wharton

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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695921,723 (3.77)81
"I put most of myself into that opus," Edith Wharton said of "The Reef," possibly her most autobiographical novel. Published in 1912, it was, Bernard Berenson told Henry Adams, "better than any previous work excepting "Ethan Frome."" A challenge to the moral climate of the day, "The Reef" follows the fancies of George Darrow, a young diplomat en route from London to France, intent on proposing to the widowed Anna Leath. Unsettled by Anna's reticence, Darrow drifts into an affair with Sophy Viner, a charmingly naive and impecunious young woman whose relations with Darrow and Anna's family threaten his prospects for success. For its dramatic construction and acute insight into social mores and the multifaceted problem of sexuality, "The Reef" stands as one of Edith Wharton's most daring works of fiction.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Gah! Really? That's it?! I thought surely BBC4 must be performing it's abridged audio of this in a series, and that they'll continue the story next month or next year or whenever. But on reading other reviews, it seems what I got is all there is. It ends mid story, unresolved, unexplained, and uninspired. What a slog! Whiny, high-strung, obsessive, and neurotic Anna wants to ruin everyone else's lives because she can't get it together. George seems competent, so why would he fall in love with the b*tch? Sophie is confused and weak; her character never came together for me at all. And Owen is a mere shadow.

This is a case of a novel resting on its laurels. Or, perhaps resting on its author's laurels. I'm sure it was considered scandalous and ground-breaking in its day, which no doubt carried it forward through successive generations, buoyed by Wharton's reputation as an accomplished author. (The House of Mirth came out 6 years earlier, Ethan Frome the year before, and The Age of Innocence 8 years later.) People also seem inclined to regard highly novels in which the characters suffer pitilessly, and/or stories that are not resolved. This one contains both. But it just drags on with much contemplation and little action. It relies on the standard theme of romantic classics: the observation of mere slivers of information by the female protagonist leads to gross assumptions and thereby enormous misunderstandings, which then lead the self-sacrificing heroine to throw herself on the proverbial pyre for the betterment of her fellow neophytes. (See Jane Austin: bibliography.) The only difference here was that Wharton didn't tidy it up with a neat ribbon; hence the raving popularity.

I'm not buying it. Like, literally not buying it. Not even borrowing it. It's always a huge risk for an author to leave a story somewhat unformed. When it works, it's spectacular, but when it fails, it falls with a dull thud. Not so much as an echo on this one.

P.S. Where does the reef come in? That the characters have all figuratively been thrown up on it, bloodied and battered? More likely that would be the readers. ( )
  Lit_Cat | Dec 9, 2017 |
French countryside — most autobiog. of her novels
EW a snop — real classes — artistic / cultural interests
Sophie Viner — name — clinging vine
Darrow — lover — floundering in hi life on the Reef
Anna — widow, angel in the house, perfect / ideal woman, never questions
Termine Hotel — the end — finished w/ all
Givre — home french world — for Frost
OK for Darrow affair / not Sophie — not good enough for Owen — Owen + Anna — stepmother / son — little incestuous
Modern Bk Club + Film Clubs today most like Salons of long ago — artistic cultural interests

When George Darrow, a young American diplomat in Paris, is slighted by the woman he intends to propose marriage to, he has a brief, seemingly inconsequential affair with a spirited young woman whom he has taken under his wing. Months later, Darrow and the widowed Anna Leath mend their relationship and make plans to wed. But before they can announce their plans, Darrow learns that the engagement of Anna's stepson threatens to have a profound effect on his own.
  christinejoseph | Jul 11, 2017 |
But Ross says THEY WERE ON A BREAK! ( )
  Citizenjoyce | Apr 1, 2017 |
The Reef is possibly one of Edith Wharton’s lesser known novels, but according to Anita Brookner in her introduction to my Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition was written during her most brilliantly creative period. In 1910 Edith Wharton’s affair with journalist Morton Fullerton had ended, and it would appear that he is present here, in some respect at least, in the character of George Darrow. The Reef is apparently the novel of Wharton’s most admired by Henry James, and is said to be the most Jamesian of all her novels. I read a number of Henry James novels about twenty odd years ago, some I liked more than others, and I can certainly see echoes of James in this novel of Wharton’s – but I infinitely prefer Wharton’s writing to that of Henry James.

Sorry folks – there may be spoilers ahead.

George Darrow is a young diplomat seemingly in love with American widow Anna Leath, living in France with her young daughter and adult step-son. Having known one another years earlier, they have renewed their relationship after meeting in London. The marriage of Anna to her first love seems assured, once she has prepared her family for the change in her circumstances. On his way to Anna’s French chateau George receives a telegram from Anna asking him to delay his arrival by some weeks – with no explanation immediately following, George feeling angry and disappointed encounters Sophy Viner. Sophy is a very different kind of woman to Anna, having been working as a kind of dogsbody to a notoriously vulgar society woman in London; Sophy is travelling to France to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress. Sophy is a spontaneous vibrant young woman unable to hide her feelings; she has little of the reserved self-restraint that Anna Leath is possessed. Upon their arrival in Paris, George Darrow decides to treat Sophy to a kind of holiday while she awaits news of her friends, and decides what she will do next. Over the next few days they dine together, and they visit the theatre –where George bumps in to Owen Leath, Anna’s step son. Sophy manages to slip out of sight, unaware that Owen has caught a glimpse of the edge of her pink cloak as she slid away, and Darrow believes he is safe from any embarrassing explanations. They return to their hotel, their rooms next door to one another, George is very much aware of Sophy on the other side of the wall. There is a kiss, and the irrepressible Sophy is certainly relaxed enough in George to playfully put her hands over his eyes – a little tease if ever there was one – but just how far their relationship goes is never explicitly revealed, although one assumes they went a little further than the conventions of the time would think proper. However it is this brief relationship – if it can even be called that – that is the reef of the title – the reef on which George Darrow and Anna Leath’s future happiness may yet flounder.

“There was such love as she had dreamed, and she meant to go on believing in it and cherishing the thought that she was worthy of it.”

Some months later and George and Anna are finally together at Givre – the chateau that Anna shares with her mother-in-law, step son and daughter. Anna has employed a new governess for her daughter, and is almost ready to settle the matter of her marriage once and for all. The one thing Anna wants to get settled first is to ensure the happiness and security of her step-son Owen with whom she has always been very close. Owen, although only twenty-one has recently engaged himself to a girl who both he and his step-mother know his grandmother will highly disapprove. Anna has pledged to help him all she can to secure his grandmothers blessing; she tells George she wishes to settle this matter for Owen before she announces their plans to the family. George perfectly understands, happily pledging his own support. However, George is yet to find out who the girl to whom Owen has engaged himself is – Effie’s governess, Sophy Viner.

George Darrow spends the next few days desperately trying to ensure Sophy’s silence. This necessitates the two of them meeting for quite little chats away from the rest of the household, unobserved, or so Darrow believes. A jealous Owen, does notice – and wonders why two people who apparently only met once or twice years before in London while Sophy was working for the dreadful Mrs Murrett should have so much to say to one another. One evening Owen notices Sophy’s pink cloak, a cloak he seems to think he may have seen before. Wharton toys with her readers beautifully, as she gradually draws out the family drama, George lies without conscience, revealing his guilt as he tries to dig himself out of a difficult situation. Will the truth when revealed – mean an end to Anna and Geoge’s marriage plans? Will Sophy and Owen save their fragile young love, will Owen and Anna’s relationship become damaged in the storm? Can any relationship survive when lies have been found out? These are questions just as relevant today.

“That bliss, in the interval, had wound itself into every fold of her being. Passing, in the first days, from a high shy tenderness to the rush of a secret surrender, it had gradually widened and deepened, to flow on in redoubled beauty. She thought she now knew exactly how and why she loved Darrow, and she could see her whole sky reflected in the deep and tranquil current of her love.”

Of course all this drama over a little fling may seem a little dated now, but in the early 1900’s such things were huge. Anna seems haunted by the thought of them together, the knowledge that Sophy has “been there before” with George, that theatre, that restaurant in Paris, she now cannot bear to go with him.

Wharton’s writing is utterly sublime, the depth and subtlety of her characters emotions are brilliantly and deftly handled. There is a reckless carelessness about George Darrow that makes him rather unlikeable; in a sense both Anna and Sophy are victims of his unconcern. The ending is rather odd, with Anna visiting Sophy’s blowsy, ridiculous sister, as she reclines in bed a small dog yapping for attention and her latest lover in the next room. Against the memory of her awful sister, and Anna Leath’s indecision, Sophy almost appears the better woman. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | May 18, 2014 |
Wharton seems to specialise in tragic romantic fiction. ( )
  wonderperson | Mar 30, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edith Whartonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Brookner, AnitaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
French, MarilynIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Underwood, KristenNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'Unexpected obstacle. Please don't come till thirtieth. Anna'
In an introduction to The Reef published some years ago, a critic suggested that Edith Wharton should have called the novel The Chateau because of its brilliant evocation of a French country manor. (Introduction)
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Anna Leath is a young widow, an American living in France. Behind her lies an arid marriage and a life deeply influenced by the rigid code of Old New York. The novel opens as Anna awaits a new and fuller life: a chance encounter with George Darrow, the first love of her youth, has left her awakended, disturbed, filled with new hope. Anna returns to her beautiful country chateau, Givré, to await her future: between two short distances can anything happen to disrupt such promise? But the charming Sophie Viner, governess to Anna's young daughter, holds the key to a secret which comes to reveal that Anna's future - and the very foundation of her life - is fragile where it appears most strong.
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