Edith Wharton, “Xingu”

A fabulous, funny story about the pretentiousness of high society women and their book clubs. (Here’s a summary.) Xingu is a river in Brazil, but the reader doesn’t know that. Five of the six women in the club don’t know that, nor does their guest, the imperious novelist Osric Dane who’s deigned be the guest of the book club to talk about her latest novel, about which no one talks. The group is flummoxed, unable to talk about much of anything seriously, it is ridiculed by Dane, until Mrs. Roby, seemingly the least intellectual of the bunch, saves the discussion by allusively referring to Xingu. No one knows what it is but they all seize on Xingu as their life raft and get lost in it, including Dane, until Roby and Dane leave together for a bridge party. The women, after more pretending that they know what Xingu is, finally look it up, realize it’s a river in Brazil, where Roby once lived, and realize they’ve been had. They decide to kick Roby out of the group.

There’s some thought that Wharton was getting back at Henry James in the story: could there possibly have been a more pretentious man in America?

Of the head of the group, Mrs. Ballinger: “Her mind was an hotel where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their address behind, and frequently without paying for their board.“ The line reminds me of an equally cruel line in Cheever:

“Alice Malloy had dark, stringy hair, and even her husband, who loved her more than he knew, was sometimes reminded by her lean face of a tenement doorway on a rainy day, for her countenance was long, vacant, and weakly lighted, a passage for the gentle transports and miseries of the poor.”

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