If Edith Wharton were alive and writing now, who would she be?
Dominick Dunne is the first novelist who comes to mind, especially
his first few novels. But Dunne's books are, more often than not,
jump-started by a crime; for Wharton, a social gaffe was sufficient
to fuel a plot. And Wharton's books were rich in subplots and
You could, I think, make the case that Amy Ephron is our Wharton.
This seems, on the surface, improbable. Ephron lives in Los
Angeles, where roots do not run deep and Society goes back only a
handful of generations. She has worked --- gasp --- in the movie
business, where people with a provenance rarely venture. And she
writes novels that are painfully short: ONE SUNDAY MORNING runs to
214 pages only because the book is small and the margins are
What Ephron shares with Wharton: Her books are not so much written
as carved. Every word counts. And, like Wharton, every word is
about the story --- there are no digressions, no riding of an
authorial hobbyhorse. And, like Wharton, Ephron is concerned how a
small event can be inflated into a large one.
In ONE SUNDAY MORNING, the event is a view from the window of a
Gramercy Park townhouse: young Lizzie Carswell leaving a hotel in
broad daylight with Billy Holmes, a man engaged to one of her
friends. Lizzie's mother had to go abroad because of a scandal;
have mom's degenerate genes been passed on? And what will Clara
Hart, Billy's intended, do when she hears the news (as she most
Wharton material, to be sure. But there's a tension here you
wouldn't find in a Wharton novel --- the story is set in 1927, and
so, very much bubbling under the Society plot, is the reckless mood
of that era. Alcohol. Drugs. Homosexuality. These add a
Fitzgeraldian spice to the strict moral tale that is Ephron's
legacy from Wharton. And, just in case you're nostalgic for
Somerset Maugham, there's a man just back from very interesting
travels in Asia. Maybe he's a lost soul. Maybe he's a potential
This isn't to say that Amy Ephron has cherrypicked her influences
(though if she did, she couldn't have done better). You read this
book for itself, and for the precise portraits she draws. Sample:
"Clara was nursing a gin and tonic. She had a Piaget watch on her
right wrist that Billy had picked up for her at an antique store.
It had a simple black band and a plain gold rim around its face so
the numbers themselves were the set-piece, distinctly Piaget.
Billy's linen suit was appropriately wrinkled. It occurred to Mary
that they fit into Paris in a way that she never would."
Mary will, of course, get a big surprise. So will the other
characters. It turns out that quite a lot can happen in 214 pages
--- that is, when the writer is a master storyteller like Amy
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 13, 2011
One Sunday Morning