The Reef is, apparently, Edith Wharton's attempt at writing a novel in the style of Henry James. I love Wharton, but I find James to be very frustrating, so it's no surprise that The Reef is one of my least favorite of all the Wharton novels I've read. In the Jamesian way, the plot is barely a plot at all, little more than a barebones structure on which to hang an investigation into the complexities of human thought and experience. Most of the events in the novel involve one person ushering another person into a different room than the one they're standing in so that they can have a heart-to-heart conversation. Those conversations never quite reach a satisfactory conclusion--that's why they keep having to do it over and over again.
But Wharton is a canny observer, and her clear prose makes The Reef a more enjoyable experience than wading through something like The Ambassadors. The story follows George Darrow, an older man who is disappointed by the reticence of the woman he's loved for many years, Anna Leath. His dissatisfaction compels him to drift into a brief affair with a young and impecunious woman named Sophy Viner. This affair lasts for only a few days, and it drifts out of Darrow's mind, but later, when he and Anna are about to be reconciled, he visits her estate in the south of France to realize that her new governess is none other than--you guessed it--Sophy Viner. And what's more, Sophy is engaged to Anna's stepson, Owen.
Sophy's low status gives Darrow the excuse he needs to mildly oppose the marriage, contrary to Anna's wishes, but this position threatens to divide the two older lovers as much as the revelation of Darrow's affair would. The Reef is one of those strange reading experiences that remind us what a foreign world was the past of even a hundred years ago; it's impossible to imagine Darrow having the kind of anxiety he exhibits here in 2015. His affair with Sophy would be unfortunate, and a bizarre coincidence, but it wouldn't drive him to the desperation to interfere with her marriage to Owen that he exhibits here. Part of appreciating The Reef is accepting that Darrow's actions force him into a real moral dilemma, and that the choice he has to make between his own marital happiness and Sophy's is a reasonable one. What is at risk for Darrow is the wholeness of a past, present, and future in Anna's love:
And so she seemed now to be walking to him down the years, the light and shade of old memories and new hopes playing variously on her, and each step giving him the vision of a different grace She did not waver or turn aside; he knew she would come straight to where he stood; but something in her eyes said "Wait," and again he obeyed and waited.
Darrow's affair comes out of course; Anna is too observant and has been too intimate with Darrow than to be held in the dark. Much of the psychological richness of the novel comes from the way that the characters "read" each other, always incompletely and inconsistently, but also with surprising perceptiveness. Eventually--spoiler alert--the two of them come to a place of reconciliation, but Wharton refuses to offer a cheap solution to the question of which of the two, Darrow and Sophy, will get their marriage and their happiness. Sophy drifts off in the end, away from the Leaths and back into poverty and uncertainty, toward the chaotic East represented by India. The way in which the novel gives her up--in which she gives herself up for Darrow and Anna--is a bitter price that mutes the happiness we are meant to feel for Darrow and Anna. It's hard not to feel that Sophy, always inherently honest and, if I can say so, a thousand times more interesting than the mild widow Anna, doesn't deserve what happens to her. But then again, neither do Archer Newland and Countess Olenska, nor does Lily Bart. (Ethan Frome probably deserves it, though.)