MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Mireille Guiliano is the author of "French Women Don't Get Fat," the book that popularized leek soup as a diet staple. Before she became a best-selling author and the president and CEO of Clicquot Inc., Guiliano was a student of literature. And she recommends Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth" for our series, You Must Read This.
Ms. MIREILLE GUILIANO (Author, "French Women Don't Get Fat"): In my early 20s, I met author Edith Wharton in a literature class while I was living in Paris and attending the Sorbonne. Right away, I felt I had a friend. I had recently spent a year in New England and New York and was acutely aware of how living in a new country makes you see the strengths and weaknesses of your own. Wharton was a writer who knew both America and Europe. I was hooked. It was during those years I first read "The House of Mirth."
I was in Paris during the spring 1968 student riots, when final exams got postponed indefinitely and provincial students like me got stuck in Paris because the trains and everything else were on strike. These were exciting times. Every day, the boulevards resembled the revolutionary France of two centuries earlier, with screaming, swearing, fighting, anger, and violence of a kind I had never encountered in the modest world where I grew up.
"The House of Mirth" caught my attention because of the character of Lily Bart. She drew me into this rich, tragic tale. The novel is the story of a gorgeous, intelligent and sometimes naive woman who is precariously perched on high society's ladder in early 20th-century New York. I've read "The House of Mirth" half a dozen times, and I'm always saddened to see Lily alone, without parents or friends she can trust. Why is this charming woman so bad at making decisions that are in her self-interest?
Lily wants happiness, like all young adults starting out in life. She also wants a lot of money. So she rejects some viable options, takes advice from the wrong people, and does not listen to her heart.
Part of Wharton's achievement is she makes us care for Lily, who is trapped in her times but in herself as well. I respect Lily's integrity, drive, honesty and character, but I am angered and saddened by her materialism, her social game-playing and acquiescence to being an accessory. I want to reach out and advise and help her. I'd like to change her values so that simplicity and quality over quantity rule her desires and needs.
Discovering "The House of Mirth" helped me understand what I wanted from life. Most of all, the novel is a timeless guidebook to discovering the kind of values I have embraced. I did not want to be Lily Bart. Rereading it now gives me added pleasures. Merci, Edith Wharton.
BLOCK: Mireille Guiliano is the author of "French Women Don't Get Fat." There's an excerpt from "The House of Mirth" and more You Must Read This recommendations at npr.org/books.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.