The most well-known of Wharton’s novels, The Age of Innocence, allows a window into the life of this remarkable woman, as Lee’s biography reminds us. Wharton was a woman whose own marriage was a “hollow mockery.” She was raised an American but her life took on a wholly European flavor. Her life was largely about appearances and being watched. She was not above exploiting these themes to illuminate her image as well as her art.
And yet the picture that emerges from this exhaustive and entertaining book is one of a woman achieving a great deal for her time. Through her novels—themselves tales of lonely people struggling against convention and private ambition—she left behind the strands of a story that sticks with us today: how America deals with its European cultural origins, and how we both flee them and embrace them at the same time. There is fulfillment, she seems to be telling us, in unfulfillment.