The Razor’s Edge
by W. Somerset Maugham
This is the “true” story about several people of Maugham’s acquaintance. Through his friend Elliott Templeton, a snobby but generous socialite, the author is introduced to several young Americans. One of them, Larry Darrell, intrigues Maugham. The young man was a pilot in World War I, but ever since returning home he’s refused to get a job. When asked by the curious author what he wants to do, Larry admits that he simply wishes to ‘loaf’. Larry’s fiancée, Isabel, has other ideas. She wants Larry to take his place in society, get a good job and make lots of money. When Larry continues to turn down job after job, the two of them agree to take a break. Larry heads off to Paris and immerses himself in study while continuing to shun ‘proper’ society. As months go by, it becomes clear that while Larry and Isabel love each other deeply, they have very different goals in life. They break their engagement, and Larry becomes a wanderer, traveling the world in a quest to find something absolute. Isabel returns to America and marries the son of a successful stockbroker, settling into the role of a wealthy mother. As the years pass, Maugham continues to cross paths with various characters, updating us on their triumphs and tribulations throughout the years.
I’m having a hard time figuring out how to talk about this book, other than “Oh boy! I really enjoyed that story! You should read it!” A lot of The Razor’s Edge is social commentary, Maugham poking fun at society in America and Europe through his characters. Think Pride and Prejudice, without the marriage obsession, and with a nastier bite. But a fair portion of the book, especially in the final quarter, is an exploration of Eastern religion and philosophy.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Larry rejects the traditional American path to happiness – go to college, get a good job, make lots of money – but in the end ends up much happier than his childhood friends. Isabel and her husband, Gray Matchurin, make money their focus but are ruined in the stock market crash. Elliott parties constantly and moves in the best society, but when he’s older he finds himself forgotten and alone.
I especially enjoyed Maugham’s characters because they were all very complex. No one was especially good or evil, but each a unique blend of their own virtues and vices. Several of the female characters, too, seemed very masculine. Isabel, Susan and Sophie were very open about their sexuality and embraced the earthier side of their nature. It makes the novel seem quite modern, even though it’s now nearly seventy years old.
5 out of 5 stars