The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
In a story that feels strongly influenced, in terms of structure and style, by Anna Karenina, we follow Lily Bart, a lady of largely dependent means, as she attempts to navigate and maintain her place and status within the upper echelons of New York high society at the turn of the twentieth century.
It wears its influence well, telling a compelling story that focusses more completely on the personal and micro-societal than on the grander societal and political themes that enrich and make Anna Karenina the epic that it is. This focus animates this take more than sufficiently to successfully tell its own story, and the comparison is meant as a compliment and not as a criticism.
Being character-based, this novel depends on the main protagonist and her supporting cast as to whether it flies or falls. It flies. From the moment we are introduced to her, we are charmed into the world of the infuriating yet seductive main protagonist, Lily Bart. She and it are drawn so as to beguile you in a way said protagonist does to the similarly well-drawn cast of supporting characters who colour this rarefied place.
We inhabit a world where the surface is the truth and the surface is everything. We have to navigate the world in a similar way to Lily, trying to read the undercurrents that ripple and rumble beneath – and this is probably a significant factor making this story as compelling as it is. Lily is the only one that we really get to see both sides of, which helps us understand, if not always sympathise with, her motivations, and helps us to read the world and the other characters we meet.
That we care and are intrigued to a similar degree as the main characters about the petty intrigues that consume their lives, whilst these lives and intrigues are simultaneously being satirised and commented upon, is a great tribute to the skill of the writer. That we care about, understand, and often sympathise with the motivations and actions of this cast, including the main protagonist, of largely unsympathetic characters is yet another tribute to how the writer allows these characters to exist as real relatable people with real concerns rather than ciphers that exist to make a point.
It is this recognisable humanity combined with the showing-not-telling that suits this surface world so well that gives these petty intrigues their weight, and makes this a compelling and rewarding story from beginning to end.