The Bunner Sisters (1916)
by Edith Wharton
Turns out I'm quite a fan of Edith Wharton. Such a fan that even her lesser hits have appeal. The Bunner Sisters is a Wharton outlier: First, it's a novella/short story (75 pages) and not a novel. Second, it's was written as early as 1891 but stayed unpublished till 1916- unusual for Wharton to hold onto a story for so long without publication. Third, it's milieu is the lower class in urban New York. Although Wharton was fond of having her central characters struggle with issues related to poverty, they typically do so in an environment where their friends o have money. I'm thinking of Lily Bart in the excellent The House of Mirth (1905). Another good example of poor character/rich setting is the central couple of The Glimpses of the Moon (1922)
In both those books the "poor" characters are poor because of some historical accident related to their family history but they are firmly "upper class" in terms of their tastes, demeanor and plot points. On the other hand The Bunner Sisters are firmly working class/poor people, running a little shop in an unnamed part of New York City in the early 20th century (Mid town?) Ann Eliza and Evelina are content more or less, living their quiet little lives until a clock, given as a birthday present from one to the other introduces Herman Ramy into their lives. Ramy runs the shop where the clock was purchased. He tells the sisters of his past "working for Tiffany's" in their clock and watch department until an illness forced him to lose his place.
He wooes the eldest sister, Ann Eliza to be his wife but she turns him down for reasons that are somewhat obscure to the reader but have to do with "sacfrice" and "forebearance." He then turns his attention to the younger sister, marries her and takes her off to St. Louis where he has found a position. To tell more would function as a spoiler for the narrative, but suffice it to say there is a twist that is fairly unexpected for a short story written in the 19th century.
The Bunner Sisters is a welcome change of pace within the Wharton bibliography, though I frankly question how the editors of 1001 Books can include a Wharton short story and NOT include a SINGLE short story by Anton Chekov. What gives?