McMillan debuts with a present-day retelling of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth set in Cleveland, Ohio, Wharton’s hometown.
Who knew the longtime symbol of Rust Belt decline is still home to a thriving, social upper class composed of old-money families and the nouveau riche? Despite a little partaking of marijuana, even the city’s young elite come across here as slightly anachronistic—the unnamed narrator refers to Betty Crocker and Phyllis Schlafly, and it’s hard to accept that her arch tone, brittle but not quite witty, belongs to a young woman of the 21st century. She is expecting her first child with her genial husband, Jim, a lawyer originally from the south but preppy enough to be accepted by Cleveland blue bloods. Ellie Hart returns to this gossipy, incestuous world from New York City after a nasty divorce and a stay in a rehab facility. Beautiful, glamorous and broke, she is hoping to use her cache and connections to find a new husband. The narrator witnesses Ellie’s escapades with a mixture of sympathy, jealousy and alarm. Initially Ellie seems to deserve jealousy as men flock toward her. But Ellie, a mix of mercenary man-eater and romantic innocent, is also self-destructive. She blows her chances with a pompous aristocrat, refuses to play the game with a coarse business tycoon, and invests what money she has unwisely. Her real attachment is to William Selden, a professor of romance literature, who is more conventional than he appears. As Ellie’s schemes flounder, the tone darkens from brittle comedy of manners to cautionary anti-drug tragedy. The narrator’s domestic happiness is briefly threatened, but her bourgeois domesticity stands in superior contrast to Ellie’s ruin. While pitying Ellie, the narrator blames her downward spiral squarely on her poor choices. Readers will likely blame William, who has been both a corrupter and a coward.
While Wharton fans will have fun comparing and contrasting the plots and characters, McMillan’s version is a cartoonish echo of the classic.