"The Fruit of the Tree" by Edith Wharton is well written, but falls short of her previous effort "The House of Mirth". Published originally on October 19th of 1907, it is split into four books. The novel touches on social progress in the form of improvements for the working class, and then moves into an interesting ethical situation when it comes to the idea of euthanasia. The last part is the most interesting part of the book for me, and it is amazing to see how little the discussion has changed in the last hundred years.
In book one, a young man, John Amherst, takes advantage of an opportunity to push for significant change in the Westwood Mills. The opportunity is in the form of Bessy Langhope, the recently widowed wife and now owner of the mills. On the heels of an accident where a worker loses an arm, he is in the position of giving her a guided tour of the mills. She shows initial interest in making life better for the workers at the mills, but she is easily dissuaded and distracted from making any real change by those who her husband had put in charge of the mills. The result is that John Amherst is let go by those men, and though Bessy offers to intercede on his behalf, he is against her taking any such action. Her last appeal to him is of a more personal nature, and that is where the book ends. Another key character is Justine, a nurse who helps make John aware of the severity of the accident.
Book two picks up after John and Bessy have married. In this section, John learns the true nature of Bessy. Though she can be stirred to action when confronted directly with issues, when the changes at the mills start to impact her finances, she starts to move away from letting John implement the changes he knows are so desperately needed. Justine is a friend both to John and Bessy and can see them being pulled apart, largely through lack of communications, but also by their social connections. Friends of Bessy are concerned about her finances, as well as the future for her daughter Cicely from her first marriage. Another stress point between John and Bessy is the loss of their own child through a miscarriage. This chapter ends with John and Bessy becoming separated.
Book three largely centers on Bessy and Justine during the separation. Justine works to try to bring John back, but he is stubborn, and Bessy is as well. Their inability to communicate with each other is what really keeps them apart, but deep down Justine knows that they both still care for each other. When a tragic accident occurs and Bessy is suffering and likely dying, Justine does all she can to find and bring John back, but he has taken a trip to South America and is difficult to contact. Justine is concerned about Bessy's sufferings. Dry Wyant strongly believes she can recover, but ignores the suffering aspect. Dr. Garford seems to believe she won't make it, but also admits that anything could happen. Justine while treating Bessy by herself, and hearing the pleas of her patient, breaks down and gives an overdose of morphine. Shortly after, Dr. Wyant comes in and realizes what occurred. This is where book three ends.
Book four has John Amherst back and fully in charge of the mills. He treats them like a trust for Bessy's daughter Cicely, and gives credit for his reforms to Bessy and Cicely but not himself. Justine has taken on the job of taking care of Cicely, the secret of what she has done remains, with only herself and Dr. Wyant aware of what took place. John and Justine grow together, and get married, but Dr. Wyant's career and life are going in a negative direction, and he starts asking for help from Justine. She gives small amounts to try to help him, but she feels he is no longer fit to be a doctor so she refuses to help him get a position. The threat of Wyant telling John or Bessy's father still remain, and this is where the discussion of the morality of euthanasia really comes to the foreground. How will John Amherst react, he is a very moral man and loved Bessy, and how will Bessy's father react, as he still has a great deal of influence with Cicely.
The writing is good, but the story feels a bit too much like a soap opera, and the characters sometimes come across as being a bit two-dimensional. Thus, though her use of language and story transitions is improved, overall this novel does not come up to the level of "The House of Mirth" or her other great works. Overall, I am giving this book three stars, but a three star book from Wharton is still not a bad thing to read, and it is interesting to see how little has changed with regards to attitudes towards euthanasia.