Thursday, August 4, 2016

Betrayal and Happenstance in The Reef by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton's 1912 novel The Reef is on my list for the Classics Club. I had the chance to delve into the novel last week, but it left me with mixed feelings. 

In The Reef, George Darrow is a diplomat travelling from London to France to propose to Anna Leath. George and Anna have known each other for years, but she's now a widow with a young daughter, Effie, and a stepson, Owen. Owen will soon inherit Givré, the estate where Anna, Effie and Owen live with Anna's mother-in-law, Madame de Chantelle. 

George's trip takes a different turn when he receives a telegram from Anna asking that he postpone his visit. Feeling weary of being put off by Anna, he decides to go to Paris. He meets Sophy Viner, a beautiful young woman who is also on her way to Paris to start her career in the theater. Sophy has no money, so George decides to show her Paris, and soon they begin an affair.

Months later, George gets his chance to propose to Anna. He visits her at Givré where a family drama is taking place. Owen wants to marry, but Madame de Chantelle doesn't approve of the young woman he wants to marry. George finds an unexpected and an unwelcome coincidence that Sophy is not only Effie's governess but also Owen's fiancée. 

George and Sophy try to keep their past relationship a secret. He's given little thought to Sophy or what happened between them in Paris. George tries to influence whether Sophy and Owen will marry and takes several opportunities to speak to Sophy in private, suggesting that she leave Givré and continue with her career in the theater. It soon becomes impossible for them to keep their secret. Much of the second half of the novel deals with the feelings of the characters and Anna's attempt to decide whether she can marry George after his betrayal.

Although I loved the writing in the novel and found the characters interesting, the last few chapters of the book left me wanting more. In these chapters, the story moved back and forth from the French countryside to Paris as Anna tried to decide what to do. The ending seemed a little ambivalent and abrupt. I'm still not sure exactly what happened, or what Anna finally decided. 

In reading about The Reef, I found a quote from Edith Wharton. Apparently, The Reef wasn't her favorite novel, and she called it "a poor miserable lifeless lump." I certainly wouldn't go that far, but I did want more from the story. Having said this, however, I would still recommend The Reef, especially for readers who enjoy Wharton's novels.

Have you read The Reef?


  1. It's Wharton's writing that I love in The Reef...I think it's some of her best...but I know what you mean about the storyline and the ending. No matter what Anna chooses, it seems like she's going to be unhappy and miserable, and I really didn't like that. It's sort of a melancholy read. More so than some of her other books.

  2. I hadn't ever heard of this one until we visited The Mount. Sounds like not one of her best.