‘House of Mirth,’ Updated

From The New York Times:

This-Vacant-Paradise-Book-Cover To take on a reinterpretation of one of the greatest novels of the 20th century in one’s debut is, to put it mildly, a gutsy move. Victoria Patterson’s first novel, “This Vacant Paradise,” set in Newport Beach, Calif., in the expansive, bullish 1990s, is a modern take on Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth.” Patterson’s first book, a story collection, “Drift,” was also set in Newport Beach, but it concerned itself mainly with drifters, lowlifes and working stiffs rather than the upper crust. Southern California’s Orange County is known to viewers of reality television as the quintessentially upper-middle-class, suburban, mostly white, Christian and Republican enclave where class, social strictures and the pressure to “marry well” still pervade — it is, in other words, a world not so different from Lily Bart’s. In “This Vacant Para­dise,” Esther Wilson is a gorgeous, materialistic, self-absorbed college dropout who, at 33, fears that her beauty is on the cusp of fading. She works as a cashier at a boutique and embezzles small amounts of cash to augment her modest income. Occasionally she also receives handouts from her capricious, wealthy grand­mother, with whom she lives. Lonely and in debt, Esther feels desperate to snag a rich man soon, before she’s too old to cash in on her beauty.

Once Esther’s eyes have been opened — by sex, by ideas, by the experience of love — she can’t close them. The final scenes of Patterson’s novel depart from Wharton’s in a significant way. So as not to reveal the ending, suffice it to say that some important things have changed for women in the last century. Although we are still judged as harshly as ever, primarily by one another, and although the past can never be escaped, we have won the literary right, it seems, to fall from grace without being killed for it. This is a sort of progress. Patterson beautifully parses the consequences of one woman’s fall in this memorable, penetrating, fully achieved novel.

More here.