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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An unapologetic story of social demands
"The Custom of the Country" is hard and unflinching in its telling of Undine Spragg's relentless pursuit for fortune and fame in the early 20th century. Through Undine Spragg and her various loves, Ms Wharton articulates her thoughts on the effect of the New York society's customs on the expected roles of men and behaviours of women. Ms Wharton further shows that the...
Published on 7 July 2009 by Malo

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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not Wharton's Best
I was altogether disappointed by this novel about the unscrupulous ambitious social climber Undine Spragg and the man that she destroys. Age of Innocence and House of Mirth are just my style and a brilliant combination of character, plot, and social observation. This novel just never grabbed me - probably because Undine Spragg is an unredeeming predictable character...
Published on 5 Jan 2012 by Cara Bennett


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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An unapologetic story of social demands, 7 July 2009
By 
Malo (Singapore) - See all my reviews
"The Custom of the Country" is hard and unflinching in its telling of Undine Spragg's relentless pursuit for fortune and fame in the early 20th century. Through Undine Spragg and her various loves, Ms Wharton articulates her thoughts on the effect of the New York society's customs on the expected roles of men and behaviours of women. Ms Wharton further shows that the same can be said of another country's society when she moves the story to Paris in the later part of the book.

In Undine Spragg, Ms Wharton has spared no punches in portraying her self-centred personality and thoughts, who according to her is a perfect example of the product of New York society's customs.

As with the "House of Mirth", very few of the characters in "The Custom of the Country" were given a reprieve from the fate that they seem destined to suffer. This cannot be brought across more starkly than in the scene where Undine's husband, Ralph Marvell, finally uncovers the full scale of her lies and deception. His subsequent mental breakdown is excruciating and highly emotive. Yet at the same time, there is an ethereal quality to the loss of his grip on reality, which makes for compelling and climatic reading.

Ms Wharton does not, for any moment, spare her reader any anguish and agony in the story of Undine Spragg and particularly that of Ralph Marvell. The rare moments of true tenderness and calm in the novel are often employed to sensitise one's feelings and deepen the pity, before a devastating blow is delivered. At such points, one cannot help but submit helplessly and almost unquestioningly to Ms Wharton's portrayal of her characters, and ultimately to her sublime story-telling.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is our custom, 13 Feb 2007
By 
E. A Solinas "ea_solinas" (MD USA) - See all my reviews
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Few social climbers are as surreally despicable as Edith Wharton's Undine Spragg, who doesn't care what happens to anyone else as long as she can shop and party. And "The Custom of the Country" is the perfect example of what such people do to the people around them. It's nauseating and brilliant, all at once.

Undine Spragg is a mesmerizing beauty from a tiny town, whose parents made a small-scale fortune and have moved to the glitzy world of New York. Undine wants the best of everything, more than her family can afford, but she thinks it's all worth it -- so she marries a besotted son of "old New York," but it doesn't take long for him to realize how incompatible they are.

And he doesn't realize that Undine is hiding a (then) shameful secret -- she was once married and quickly divorced from a vulgar businessman. In the present, Undine continues her quest for a life of pleasure, moving on to a French nobleman and getting just as dissatisfied with him. The only way to succeed lies in the one man who sees her for what she is.

Undine Spragg may actually be one of the most despicable, selfish characters in all of classic literature -- she literally doesn't care about anyone but herself, or who she hurts. You'd think a book about someone like that would be dreary, but instead it's one long needle at the people like Undine, who care only for money, status and fun.

But it's also about the changing fortunes in late 19th-century America (and Europe). New money -- symbolized by Undine and her shrewd, megarich ex-hubby -- was squeezing out the old guard, who were never terribly rich to start with. Wharton's observations on their rise and decline have a sharp, biting edge. Although compared to the anti-heroine, the old traditions seem pretty innocent.

Lots of celebrity socialites could take a lesson from Undine's story: she's a snob of humble stock, thinks she's a great person, and utterly selfish -- if her husband shoots himself, that's great! She can marry again without the disgrace of a divorce! Yet in the end, you know that Undine will always be craving something more that she thinks will make her happy, but she will never find it.

The characters around Undine are usually nice, but blinded by her nymphlike beauty -- and even her parents, who know what she's like, are too beaten-down by her whining to resist. Only her ex-husband, Ralph Marvell, is really right for her -- not only is he obscenely rich and just as grasping as Undine, but he's smart enough to know what a monster she is.

"The Custom of the Country" is a wickedly barbed, brilliant piece of work, with one of the nastiest anti-heroines ever, and a great look at the rising tides of "new money." A must-read.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Savage customs, 16 Oct 2008
By 
E. A Solinas "ea_solinas" (MD USA) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
Few social climbers are as surreally despicable as Edith Wharton's Undine Spragg, who doesn't care what happens to anyone else as long as she can shop and party. And "The Custom of the Country" is the perfect example of what such people do to the people around them. It's nauseating and brilliant, all at once.

Undine Spragg is a mesmerizing beauty from a tiny town, whose parents made a small-scale fortune and have moved to the glitzy world of New York. Undine wants the best of everything, more than her family can afford, but she thinks it's all worth it -- so she marries a besotted son of "old New York," but it doesn't take long for him to realize how incompatible they are.

And he doesn't realize that Undine is hiding a (then) shameful secret -- she was once married and quickly divorced from a vulgar businessman. In the present, Undine continues her quest for a life of pleasure, moving on to a French nobleman and getting just as dissatisfied with him. The only way to succeed lies in the one man who sees her for what she is.

Undine Spragg may actually be one of the most despicable, selfish characters in all of classic literature -- she literally doesn't care about anyone but herself, or who she hurts. You'd think a book about someone like that would be dreary, but instead it's one long needle at the people like Undine, who care only for money, status and fun.

But it's also about the changing fortunes in late 19th-century America (and Europe). New money -- symbolized by Undine and her shrewd, megarich ex-hubby -- was squeezing out the old guard, who were never terribly rich to start with. Wharton's observations on their rise and decline have a sharp, biting edge. Although compared to the anti-heroine, the old traditions seem pretty innocent.

Lots of celebrity socialites could take a lesson from Undine's story: she's a snob of humble stock, thinks she's a great person, and utterly selfish -- if her husband shoots himself, that's great! She can marry again without the disgrace of a divorce! Yet in the end, you know that Undine will always be craving something more that she thinks will make her happy, but she will never find it.

The characters around Undine are usually nice, but blinded by her nymphlike beauty -- and even her parents, who know what she's like, are too beaten-down by her whining to resist. Only her ex-husband, Ralph Marvell, is really right for her -- not only is he obscenely rich and just as grasping as Undine, but he's smart enough to know what a monster she is.

"The Custom of the Country" is a wickedly barbed, brilliant piece of work, with one of the nastiest anti-heroines ever, and a great look at the rising tides of "new money." A must-read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Custom of the Country, 12 April 2013
By 
Keen Reader "lhendry4" (Auckland, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Custom of the Country (Bantam Classics) (Mass Market Paperback)
Undine Spragg knows she wants to be part of `Society' - part of the Fifth Avenue crowd; and she sees no reason why she should not be. Driven by her own internal desire to scale the slippery social ladder, she keeps tripping herself up by believing that the thing the last person said to her must be the must important. So she keeps questioning her own actions, but never to the extent of actually learning from them. No, all she wants is what she wants, and she is constantly striving for what she believes is the next thing due to her. She is not well-read, nor learned, and she cannot fill her part of an intelligent conversation on literature or art. But she knows how to `sparkle' and "to be animated in society, and noise and restlessness were her only notion of vivacity."

There's no doubt, right from the start, that Undine is a dangerous combination - spoiled by her parents who have been worn down by her demands, used to getting her own way, and unable to comprehend that she is not the centre of her own little universe. After all, "if only everyone would do as she wished she would never be unreasonable."

This is a wonderful book, full of the razor-sharp indictment of late nineteenth/early twentieth century `Society' that only Edith Wharton (and Henry James) can accomplish with such wit and verve. Undine, her parents, her acquaintance from her Apex days, and her New York aspirations are paraded before us with such rawness that reading about it almost hurts. Undine is what would be known today as `a right piece of work', who carves her way through her own world, seemingly oblivious to the fact that other people have lives when they are not in her presence. Her rises and falls, and the carnage she leaves behind her, form the basis of this absolutely totally wonderful book, which I found impossible to put down once I had started reading it. Totally recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An American Great!, 27 Feb 2013
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A real surprise discovery! An excellent novel - elevating Wharton to a medal - probably bronze but maybe silver, to Jane Austen's gold ....
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A different sometimes funny direction for Wharton, 28 Nov 2011
By 
J. Willis (London) - See all my reviews
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The Custom of the Country was originally published in 1913 and tells the story of Undine Spragg, a girl who uses her beauty and ruthlessness to attempt to ascend New York's social ladder before she moves to Paris and paves her way there.

Undine Spragg is a fascinating character, she only has one ambition in life which is to get to the top of whichever society she happens to find herself in. She is so fixated on this desire that she is completely oblivious to everything else around her. In order to achieve her rise to the top she spends a lot of time trying to marry the right man. If the 'right' man turns out to be the 'wrong' man or she has gone as far as she can using her current husband, well she can always get a divorce.

Undine one is one of the most despicable and selfish characters I have ever read about. She does not have her own opinions or views but rather she adapts to the opinions of which ever social crowd she is attached to which leads to some quite witty moments in the book.

Near the beginning of the book, Undine receives her first New York dinner invitation and she then spends a good page and a half pondering how she should reply and what paper she should reply on..

"She had read in the Boudoir Chat ....that the smartest women were using the new pigeon-blood notepaper with white ink.. It was a disappointment, therefore to find that Mrs Fairford wrote on the old-fashioned white sheet. It gave Undine rather a poor opinion of Mrs Fairford's social standing".

To really demonstrate how Undine's mind works however was summed up in one line for me. Undine is in Paris when she receives frantic letters from her husband begging her to come home as the doctors bills for her sons illness was larger than expected and they cannot afford her lifestyle in Paris, after pondering "Was it her fault that she and the boy had been ill?" She comes out with this corker,

......"and as she leaned back among the cushions disturbing thoughts were banished by the urgent necessity of deciding what dress she should wear."

Moments like these made me chuckle but as the book went on, Undine became more and more loathsome and the people ruined or hurt in her wake (including her own little boy) became too numerous and almost became tragic.

I think the book is pointing the finger at people like her who only care for money, status and beauty, yet will always chase what they can't have. It's also a sharp look at the changing fortunes of people with money at that time.

I found this an enjoyable read with a main character that was so despicable I couldn't look away. However if you have not read Edith Wharton before then her books The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence are better so you might want to start with them.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars strong portrait of a narcissist, 16 Nov 2011
Undine Spragg sees no reason why she should not have what she wants; and is able to create a world in which it does come to pass that she does have what she wants, often at considerable price to other people. The novel starts at a time in her life when her parents are literally paying the price for her realisation of her dreams; later the price is paid by her husband and other men friends; and sooner or later, as happens to most narcissists, the world starts to cease to play ball with Undine.

The tone is generally light - not always; and while this is quite long, it does not outstay its welcome. Indeed the only issue for me is whether we are really sufficiently focussed on Undine throughout. I can see the need to explain how she appears to others; and how her marriage becomes possible. Yet shifts to the perspective of Ralph Marvell aren't always as successful as the central parts relating to Undine...Of course we should feel sorry for him; and his own gradual enlightenment is also ours. But I doubt his fate in real life would be quite as bleak as it is in this novel....
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4.0 out of 5 stars Edith Wharton, 15 April 2010
By 
A. Wilson - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Custom of the Country (Bantam Classics) (Mass Market Paperback)
My first Edith Wharton. As relevant to day as the day it was written. A brilliant read and just for 1p!Book arrived promptly from seller.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply brilliant, 3 Sep 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: The Custom of the Country (Bantam Classics) (Mass Market Paperback)
What an incredible book this is. I'm so glad the other reader-reviewers here also appreciate it for what it is: a haunting masterpiece by one of America's most gifted novelists. The tragedy of Undine Spragg is not the legacy of pain and desolation she leaves behind her, it's the fact that American society of that time created the monster she was; she was its perfect Frankenstein. I also agree with one other reviewer who wrote that this book would translate well to film.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not Wharton's Best, 5 Jan 2012
By 
Cara Bennett - See all my reviews
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I was altogether disappointed by this novel about the unscrupulous ambitious social climber Undine Spragg and the man that she destroys. Age of Innocence and House of Mirth are just my style and a brilliant combination of character, plot, and social observation. This novel just never grabbed me - probably because Undine Spragg is an unredeeming predictable character. If the female protagonist is going to be immoral, a reader either wants a captivating sexy vixon who evokes some measure of empathy and attraction (ala Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair) or a sweet nave though selfish girl who ultimately redeems herself (as in Austen's Emma). Undine Spragg is neither of these and though her character is initially interesting, she undergoes no change whatsoever and therefore becomes predictable and loses her appeal quickly. The novel also relies too much on plot and scandal (meaning scandelous flirtations and divorce). I can't say I disliked the novel, and at times I was quite happy to keep reading, but on the whole I wouldn't recommend it. Wharton has done much better.
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The Custom of the Country (Bantam Classics)
The Custom of the Country (Bantam Classics) by Edith Wharton (Mass Market Paperback - 1 May 1991)
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