I could complain that This Vacant Paradise (a reworking of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth – one of my favourite books of all time) is nothing near the quality of the original. But that’s not fair. That’s an cheap target. It’s easy to trash books that dare to rework classics. I think, instead, I shall concentrate mostly on those elements which are different from the novel and how some of them are successful. Although I don't think I will be able to resist the odd snide remark ... A synopsis of the original and my thoughts about the House of Mirth is available here.
Our heroine Esther Wilson (Lily Bart in the original) is a daughter of privilege who has fallen on hard times in a haven of material excess and snobbery - Newport Beach, California in the Clinton era. Just to ensure that we know it is the Clinton era there are ample references to Hugh Lewis and the News, Vince Foster’s suicide and OJ's travails. These, I feel, are all unnecessary references and moves us away from the inherent drama of the plot which is powerful enough on it's own.
Esther is a disappointment to all around her and she can’t seem to summon up the necessary manipulation to snare a rich husband:
She needed to look out for herself, before it was too late, since no one else would. Yet she couldn’t follow through, . . . as if a leaden weight inside her kept her at the couch — when she should be impressing potential husbands with her sad beauty.Her father, a closeted homosexual, was disowned by the family – died young and in impoverished circumstances. In House of Mirth, Lily's father has a series of financial setbacks and succumbs to illness because of them leaving the family impoverished. Interestingly enough, Esther and her brother Eric (a character who did not exist in the original book) come from some very frightening circumstances where, at a barely cognizant age, they witness their biological mother O.D. and are eventually adopted by their father.
The circumstances are murky – it appears that the two were secretly fathered by Esther’s grandfather, grandmother Eileen's husband? Did I read that correctly? The passage is obscure, rendered in a flashback that Esther has. On Esther's mother's nightstand is a photo of the grandfather, the same one that sits on the grandmother's nightstand. Ohhhh, I see (I think) ...
Eric, who has become a homeless drug addict, is sensitively and poignantly portrayed – his acute suffering and alienation humanize the sometimes shallow Esther who desperately cares for him; this sets her apart from the grasping trophy wives who surround her in Orange County. She shares money, clothing, food with Eric. It redeems her - despite her petty thievery from the clothing store she works in, her vanity and shallow preoccupation with her looks, and, her diminished self esteem.
But why wouldn't Esther be obsessed with her looks - it is her only currency as a female without means, and it is a powerful one at that. She is a college dropout with an underdeveloped intellect, living with her vitriolic grandmother, and working in a clothing store part-time with no other means of support aside from her grandmother's sporadic and controlling largess.
Charlie Murphy, a slightly pretentious Orange County Community College professor (need I say more than those four words?) and the cerebral, left-leaning "black sheep" of a wealthy family, stands in for Lawrence Selden, Lily’s romantic interest. At times the novel devolves into a sort of cheesy chicklit romance novel. I know the book is set in the late 20th c. and not the early 20th c. but the focus on the sexual aspects of the relationship is disconcerting and, again, unnecessary to the plot.
We loved the book and the book's premise, we don't need to see all the gritty details of their physical relationship (at least I didn't). In the original, I did not see it as a relationship primarily of sexual attraction but more of two kindred souls who were drawn to each other in a repressive era that refused to accept their psychological differences from the values of a certain affluent strata of the Gilded Age.
May a man and woman be attracted to each other, care for each other, and not sleep together in a novel in this day and era? Apparently not …
I confess that Lawrence Selden is a favourite literary character of mine - to have him transformed into Charlie, the type of professor who dates and beds ex-students and is obsessed with Esther’s looks is disappointing. It’s not that his character has been changed, it’s that it feels utterly false to me and the book.
One criticism I read rang very true: “This Vacant Paradise valiantly aims at but sometimes misses, settling instead for repulsive personal details unconnected to its themes of money and class and their disfiguring—indeed crushing—effects on a certain type of female personality.”
The description of the decline of the grandmother Eileen is particularly vulgar and disturbing – Mrs. Julia Peniston (the woman who takes in Lily when her parents die and from whom she is expected to inherit) she is not. Eileen’s demise is ugly and unnecessarily graphic. Esther's interaction with Charlie and especially Jim Dunnels, a wealthy, older, predatory suitor who offers her some financial relief, is coarse and explicit at times but it did not have to be to be emotionally effective.
Although Wharton's anti-Semitism was overt and truly ugly she did colour the Simon Rosedale character in a more humane aspect in certain passages of the book (represented in this book by the super rich ex-NBA star Fred Smith - black is the new Jew here). Rosedale genuinely cares about Lily's fate and tries to help her when all of the friends in her circle have abandoned her; he loves, and is charmed by, children, an endearing quality. Despite the ugliness of the portrayal there is a glimmer of humanity beneath.
Fred Smith is a two dimensional black cartoon who is never really fleshed out - loving the display of wealth and bling, surrounded by "hot" women, arrogant and overbearing. How did Patterson develop the Smith character - by watching rap videos? Fred has a weakness for Esther but it appears to be more rooted in her physical beauty rather than in a appreciation of her character.
It is unnerving how every woman’s physical attributes are dissected, criticized and demeaned by all of the characters male and female (including, and especially, Esther) but, I fear, this is a very real component of that materialistic world where breast implants, plastic surgery and botox abound. That does ring true.
One thing pleases me about this novel. I don’t want to reveal the ending but I am grateful that in the late 20th c. it is not necessary to kill off the heroine who defies societal norms. She is diminished, she is broken but, luckily, she survives.
I see I have failed to keep the bitchy tone out of this review much as I have striven to be even-handed. Oh well, mess with my Lily and see what happens?