Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Short Story Review: Xingu by Edith Wharton

Original Publication Date: 1916

Genre: Humorous short story

Topics: Society, manners, ladies' clubs, book clubs, authors,

Review: Guess what? Edith Wharton is funny! Not slap you in the face with a fish funny, but funny.

In the short story Xingu, six society ladies get together regularly to broaden their minds. It's a culture club they've named the Lunch Club. You can't just show up to a meeting and become a member, oh no, you must be recommended by someone important. While each lady has issues with one or more of the other members, they universally agree that Mrs Roby was a mistake. And she came so highly recommended, by a professor no less. Tsk-tsk.

Occasionally, they have in experts to give talks and contribute to the discussion. The ladies are all a-twitter over their next guest, author of The Wings of Death, Osric Dane. Mrs Ballinger will play hostess to the great lady, even though Mrs Plinth has a superior house (with a footman, thank you very much). The big day comes and the author arrives but she looks down her nose at the group leaving the ladies at a loss for words. They don't know what to do, until Mrs Roby starts talking about Xingu.

So what is Xingu? Don't Google it! (like I did) Really, don't. You'll find out what it is eventually. It's a lot of fun reading how the ladies bluff their way through the discussion. It reminds me of those people who lie about reading Ulysses to impress others. Not one of those women know what Xingu is, Mrs Rory excepted, but they are trying hard to convince each other they know exactly what it is.

I've always thought that Edith Wharton was part author, part sociologist. I can imagine her sitting in the background during a party with a notebook murmuring, "Interesting..." to herself as she scribbled notes about all the guests. She has the group dynamic down. Mrs Plinth is the bully, she likes to have her own way. Mrs Ballinger, founder of the Lunch Club, is her biggest competition, even though she only has two parlour-maids. Mrs Leveret will change her opinion to suit her audience, and Miss Van Vluyck and Laura Glade make the remainder of the group. The outsider is Mrs Roby.

Clearly Mrs Roby is the Cady Heron within this group of Mean Girls. However, she has enough confidence in herself to say what's on her mind. When Mrs Plinth tells her "No one reads Trollope now." She replies that she's just started and he amuses her. "Amusement," said Mrs Plinth,"is hardly what I look for in my choice of books." Mrs Plinth would not make a very good book blogger as she "so much disliked being asked her opinion of a book. Books were written to be read; if one read them what more could be expected?" That line made me laugh. I can't help but think that Edith Wharton had personal experience with a Mrs Plinth.

As for Osric Dane, she's one of those insufferable literati who think everyone else is an idiot- think Franzen and Oprah's Book Club. For a moment I was totally in the Lunch Club's corner. Then Mrs Roby has her revenge at last once the topic turns to Xingu.

Xingu is not the usual heavy fare from Edith Wharton and it's a nice change. I recommend it.