In Praise of the Books that Stop Your Breath

Seven years ago, I stood in line for the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince. I recall I was wearing a black shirt with bell sleeves and a lace up back–something I wouldn’t be caught dead in these days, but I had a thing for semi-goth, semi-hippie clothing at the time. My mother and I were the first ones at the bookstore, an independent place that I still think of with longing. We’d gotten there far ahead of time, so we went inside to browse the other books.

I don’t know what drew me to it (possibly the lovely cover), but I picked up Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. I knew nothing about Edith Wharton, but the book looked good, and I needed something to read over the summer, for my pre-AP English course. As I waited to get my hands on the sixth book of the Harry Potter series, I stood outside and started to read the book.

Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.

Of the two books I purchased that night, The House of Mirth has by far had more of an influence on my writing. Just reading those first lines again stops my breath. The book is beautifully written, and in the process of reading it, I wrote up a seventeen page response to it for my class. (I was shocked, when I turned in the response, to see that everyone else had written much less.)

Few people know Wharton for this book. Instead they know her for Ethan Frome–very unfortunate, as The House of Mirth is the better book. The House of Mirth is about a young woman, who, despite her lack of money, is drawn to high society. Lily Bart is hardly a noble character; she looks down on those who do not belong to high society, and she rejects her love interest Selden because he isn’t rich. But she is a beautifully crafted tragic character.

I write fantasy, but I can’t say that there are many works of fantasy that I take inspiration from, even though I’ve read plenty. I grew up with Harry Potter and will always love the series, but I don’t admire the writing. J. K. Rowling does wonderful world-building work. She is not, however, a great writer. It’s the works that take my breath away that haunt my writing.

The main character of the novel I’m working on now is shamelessly named after Lily Bart, and Acantha Bart is definitely modeled on Lily. Acantha is a high society girl, and so far she’s doing rather poorly among those of the lower class. I don’t doubt that my main male character, Fidelis, is to some extent modeled on Selden, as well. Wharton’s scene of the Furies has even pursued me from one attempted novel to the next:

Yes, the Furies might sometimes sleep, but they were there, always there in the dark corners, and now they were awake and the iron clang of their wings was in her brain…

Her soft nature recoiled from this ordeal, which had none of the stimulus of conflict to goad her through it.

It’s especially that last line that haunts me now. Much of what I’ve written so far is unpolished and basic, but I’m rather attached to this line:

Nothing in her life had prepared her to face down this burden of knowing.

The Sleepless Ones will not have the depth of The House of Mirth. I am not the writer Wharton was, but I hope that, with Wharton’s work as my inspiration, I can compose something that’s not half-bad.

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One thought on “In Praise of the Books that Stop Your Breath

  1. I thrive on books like these! I love when writers are able to paint a picture with their words, and I read books like these to try and soak up some of this talent so that it might shine through in my own writing (I’m also working on a novel – editing the rough draft until it shines). I’m definitely adding this one to my must-read list of books – a list that seems to be growing more rapidly than I can read them, lol.

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