A celebrity spotting if ever there was one…
I couldn’t quite believe it at first. So much so, I did a double take. And then another, while handing them a menu and seating them at their table of 12.
No I hadn’t by chance found some kind of time portal next to the cappuccino machine which teleported me back to 1870’s New York.
And No, I wasn’t in the throes of classic literary fever, I didn’t even have the hint of a temperature.
They didn’t just look like them, they were May, Newland and Olenka, the lead protagonists of Wharton’s gorgeous tale of love, yearning, and the constant obsession with the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence.
Why they chose my coffee shop to come into I have no idea but I loved every minute of it.
Newland and May obviously sat together and Ellen was at the other end of the table, diagonal to Newland’s line of sight.
He was everything I thought he would be, smart, charming and clearly sitting firmly in the middle of a charmed life, pretty wife by his side. But his eyes were his undoing. They betrayed it all. His disillusionment, his boredom, his panic at being trapped in.
When you looked at him you could literally feel him eyeing his surroundings looking for escape. A window or door leading out to adventure. He wanted convention, tradition and all things proper but also wanted to fly in the face of it. I could see exactly what led him to where he was sitting today. Safety. Security. Fear of the unknown and above all conformity.
His eyes kept darting to Ellen the complete opposite to May. She dark to May’s light. She curvy to May’s almost anorexic frame.
Any time Ellen’s name was mentioned, Newland’s ears seemed to prick and his head inclined in her direction. A movement that seemed to make May flinch and draw his arm tighter to her.
Ellen was stoic and strong, charming and smiling to all those around. Seeming to draw from an inner strength of self belief and discard for the judging eyes of others, except for when hers and Newland’s eyes met.
A sad recognition and acceptance of their situation fluttered between them. They both seemed so torn and yet so impossible for each other.
The others at the table seemed to dance around the invisible lines that inexorably tied May, Newland and Ellen together.
May was the complete embodiment of decorum and insecurity all in one. She smiled and indulged in hearing about one of Ellen’s latest stories or adventures before making a quick retort said pleasantly, but meant as a painful barb. Something about the contentedness of having a husband, house and life in order and that one of these days Ellen should think about the same. A pointed insinuation that Ellen should return to her own husband.
I could see the already easy resentment building between May and Newland and it was obvious to anyone that while matched well by status they weren’t matched in temperament or sense of spirit.
When they went out the door I didn’t know if they would all continue to be miserable or some how discover a solution to their situation. Ellen clearly stuck in limbo for a man who can’t be a man for her, May married to a man who married for safety and to do what was expected of him instead of following his heart or Newland who wanted to both have and eat his cake at the same time. Torn between his duty and his desire.
For characters from a book set in the 1870’s I could still see and hear them loud and clear today and it’s not hard to imagine how it all turns out.
Since guilt, agonising over what if’s and unyielding passion never go out of fashion, I think its safe to say Wharton’s classic is timeless.
Well worth a read for all those who are guilty of spending their time dithering so much that they end up forgetting to brave it and live their own life.
ps… Happy Birthday Ms Wharton, perhaps very fitting that I finished your book on the very day of your 150th birthday.