To me, reading Edith Wharton is like reading Jane Austin's older, more scathing, worldly-wise and scandalous cousin. House of Mirth is what might have been had one of Jane's heroines not managed to snag a husband.
Lily Bart moves in somewhat rarified circles. One of the darlings of New York society, Lily is very different from her friends in one important respect; whilst they're all filthy rich, she isn't, and instead lives on the largesse of her friends and other benefactors. Now 29 and still unmarried, Lily needs to snag a husband if she's to continue to live the life she prefers. Being incredibly beautiful, she has no shortage of suitors, but isn't particularly keen on any of those options. Trouble is, she wasn't raised to be anything other than a gorgeous ornament and so when the sexual power that makes men fall at her feet is used to oust her from the social circles in which she moves, Lily finds that she is useless for any kind of life other than the decorative.
Incisive both when dissecting the hypocritical high society that Lily moves in and in laying bare the character of our brilliantly flawed heroine, it was also rather emotionally affecting come the end. I both loved Lily and wanted to reach into the book to give her a shake over some of her attitudes or choices (or urge her to ruin Mrs Dorset), and was pleasantly surprised that this book didn't take me where I was expecting it to go.