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One of my recent charity shop finds, I initially read this without really being immersed in it. Penelope Farmer’s introduction fondly admits that it’s one of Wharton’s weaker novels, and I’ll have to take her word on it until I finally get around to reading The Age of Innocence.

Twilight Sleep is an enjoyable book, if a seemingly superficial one, focussing around Pauline Manford and the failing marriage of her son. Pauline is a brilliant, if misguided, woman – a compulsive organiser and meditation junkie on the books of every committee and New Age charlatan in 1920s New York. She has, with depressing inevitability, time for everyone except her family. She can be irritatingly gullible and amazingly blinkered, but my overriding thought was that if she had a real job instead of being an unpaid social chair for her husband, she’d be a much more likeable character. In fact, screw likeable – she’d probably be President.

In contrast, it’s her apathetic daughter-in-law Lita who has the burning desire to work, even if it is only to turn herself into an object by strutting her stuff on the silver screen. Wanting to work for her money, not just marry into it, she has her sights set firmly on Hollywood – and divorce from the loveable but rather hopeless Jim. Considered to be a great beauty, she enjoys flirtations but sees men as little more than razorblades in a cake – a means of escaping the prison of her current life. One of those men happens to be Dexter Manford, her mother-in-law’s second husband, who is rapidly nearing his mid-life crisis.

spoilers below

Restless, seductive Lita is the catalyst for the entire plot, and she and the determindly oblivious Pauline are the only ones who remain unchanged by the consequences of her actions. However, she is by no means the villain of the text – if anyone comes close to claiming that title, it’s Dexter. His daughter Nona, Lita’s current best friend, becomes increasingly fixated on and disconcerted by the burgeoning relationship between her father and her sister-in-law. The only one who seems aware of what’s about to happen, Nona functions as a Cassandra figure, prophesising danger but dismissed because she can’t articulate her fears. Farmer suggests that hidden in the seedy underbelly of Manford family life is “the hint of paternal abuse”, and this is borne out by Dexter’s taste in women. He has a history as a philanderer, but the only women with whom we see him extra-maritally involved are Lita (her name a disturbing echo of Nabokov’s protagonist), and Gladys Toy, whose name suggests both the levity with which Dexter treats her and his taste for childlike women. And Freud wiuld have a field day with the bizarre climactic scene, where Nona is discovered in Lita’s room, having been acccidentally shot by her mother’s first husband after she discovers her father in Lita’s bedroom.

The more I think about this book the more I appreciate, if not like, it. Beneath the frothy subplots that litter every chapter with slef-important domestic dramas, the real story is dark, unnerving, and unresolved. It’s worth a read – even if it is between the lines.