"The novel...was most enthusiastically admired by Henry James, and one can see why, for it is most Jamesian....It marks the peak of her most brilliant period of creativity....And for us it is a chance to see what can be achieved in the pursuit of moral truths." (Anita Brookner)
The affair becomes the reef on which four lives are in danger of foundering: two of them innocent and two of them burdened with experience and tinged with desperation. This is a story of the drastic effects of a casual sexual betrayal and a clear-eyed assessment of the possibilities and limitations of human love.
Another compelling Wharton-style dilemma
I have always found the work of Edith Wharton deeply compelling, because I empathize so strongly with the characters and even as I watch them make disastrous mistakes, I can't help wishing there was some way they could avoid the inevitable tragic consequences of their mistakes. This was so with Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth, and it is equally so of The Reef. However, this book ends with an odd and surprising conclusion that to my mind was ambiguous. I felt this detracted from what was otherwise a complex and powerful story.
I haven't read them all, but I've read many and for me, this is her very best. The characters are fascinating. The hero is a dolt, but Wharton makes him fascinating in his doltishness. The heroine was simply born at the wrong time, but she's touching and her fate involves you. Great narrator!