I found a copy of this book in a used bookstore, and hesitated before finally caving and buying it. I loved The Age of Innocence, but (as I learned from reading the book jacket while in the store) The Buccaneers is unfinished. Wharton wrote about 89,000 words of the story before dying in 1937, and Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring picked up where the book left off and finished the novel. There’s a note at the end about how Mainwaring made some changes to Wharton’s draft to account for later changes in the story (and she also removed some hella racist language), but for the most part, the first two thirds of the book are primarily Wharton’s. I don’t like the idea of reading unfinished stories, and I can’t decide what irks me more: an unfinished novel like Suite Francaise, which didn’t have an ending because Irene Nemirovsky died before she could finish it; or The Buccaneers, where another author is brought in to complete the draft. Either way, it makes for a frustrating experience.
That being said, Mainwaring does a pretty good job of continuing Wharton’s novel, to the point where I couldn’t tell where Wharton’s writing ended and Mainwaring’s began. Maybe if I was a more experienced Wharton reader I would have noticed discrepancies, but as far as I was concerned, it was a solid story.
The story opens in 1876 New York, where “new money” sisters Virginia and Annebel St. George are preparing to find husbands. They find that they can’t compete with the old money families of New York, and, after one of their friends marries an English lord who was visiting America, decide to follow her to England. Guided by their British governess, Laura Testvalley, the girls make their mark on the London social scene. Two more American sisters join the St. George girls, and their group becomes known as “the buccaneers,” fortune-hunting Americans invading London to snatch up all the eligible lords and dukes. Each of the four American girls ends up marrying into the aristocracy, with varied success.
The story wasn’t as tightly constructed or engrossing as The Age of Innocence, but I still loved reading Wharton’s perspective on the shallowness and complexity of high society in the 1800’s. She also makes it clear, without needing to slam it in your face, how much it sucked to be a woman in this world. The two most engrossing characters were Miss Testvalley, a confirmed spinster who’s given up all hope of finding a husband and throws herself into the job of finding good marriages for her charges; and Annabel St. George, who ends up making the best marriage and is completely miserable. Her efforts to make the best of her circumstances, knowing that she’s completely trapped in this life that she chose, were heartbreaking and beautiful.
“To begin with, what had caused Annabel St. George to turn into Annabel Tintagel? That was the central problem! Yet how could she solve it, when she could no longer question that elusive Annabel St. George, who was still so near to her, yet as remote and unapproachable as a plaintive ghost?
Yes – a ghost. That was it. Annabel St. George was dead, and would therefore never be able to find out why and how that mysterious change had come about. …
‘The greatest mistake,’ she mused, her chin resting on her clasped hands, her eyes fixed unseeingly on the dim reaches of the park, ‘the greatest mistake is to think that we ever know why we do things. …I suppose the nearest we can ever come to it is by getting what old people call “experience.” But by the time we’ve got that we
re no longer the person who did the things we no longer understand. The trouble is, I suppose, that we change every moment; and the things we did stay.”
Verdict: three out of five stars