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Epater the bourgeois — a convenient enough motto when one is secure in one’s own beliefs about the best way to live. No small a part of that confidence stems from knowing how one’s surroundings can enhance that life.

The passion Wharton put into landscaping and domestic arrangements might be seen as compensation for an unhappy emotional life — an increasingly unsatisfying marriage to Teddy Wharton and a frustrating affair in Paris with an American journalist. But that would only serve to diminish her achievement. Artifact it may be, this book, and others that followed, became a best seller.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk for The Washington Times.