I must confess that I haven't previously read any Wharton. However, as a fan of Victoriana (okay, we're talking America, not Britain, and publication a few years after Victoria's death, but let's not quibble) and particularly the Victorian novel of social mores (good ol' Wikipedia describes THOM as one of the first American novels of manners), this work fell right into my demographic, so to speak.
There is, of course, a resemblance to the works of Henry James, though Wharton does not have James' love-hate relationship with all things English; nor does Wharton possess James' subtlety as a stylist. But in comparison to James' works set in the American milieu (well, Washington Square, which is the one I've read) I preferred THOM. The story, realist with touches of melodrama, follows Lily Bart, a poor but lovely socialite, as she attempts to find a wealthy husband, but slowly sinks into a disrespectable and ultimately destitute state through th self-sabotage of her own quest. I was driven by the narrative, which is moving and tragic.
Ultimately, the novel is a sharply biting satire of the hypocritical social world of the American upper classes in this period. The work was first published in serial form, and was not expected to be hugely successful given that it was not a traditional romance as such, but it became a massive hit, perhaps because of the depiction and criticism of this upper-class world, fascinating both for those who belonged to it and those who did not. Lily Bart's quest for extensive wealth and a place in society at the cost of her own happiness is at times frustrating in its seemingly reasonless monomania, but this, I think, is the view of a modern-day reader who does not exist in such a social world.
The major characters are well and intimately drawn, although some of the minor characters are not so original or deeply sketched. But a major point of interest here is the intersection of privileged and underprivileged groups and their intersection with the (separated) spheres of social class and wealth. Lily's position as an upper-class woman makes 'good' marriage a financial necessity, and the difference between her possibilities and that of a man's in a similar class and financial situation is a theme which fascinates and angers in its inequity. The intersection between class and money, though well-explored in Victorian literature, also holds a great deal of interest in a period in which, particularly in America (even as opposed to Britain), a great deal of money was being made very quickly (in comparison to previous eras), by individuals who would not necessarily have previously had the opportunities they did, and effecting the old class system in ways which were still in the process of working themselves out. Finally, and in this light, ethnicity is also a problematic factor - one of Lily's marriage possibilities is to Simon Rosedale, a financially up-and-coming Jewish man, and there is a fair amount of nasty (authorial) antisemitism here, while at the same time a realistic depiction of the same sentiment in the New York social milieu, and an unexpected sympathetic glimpse into Rosedale's character.
I was somewhat disappointed by the ending, inasmuch as Lily's fate seems inevitable (though realistic), even fatalistic, in the same way as the typical homosexual narrative in fiction. However, ultimately THOM provides not only a fascinating and emotionally involving narrative, and a glimpse into a social milieu which is relatively under-represented in fiction, but also a fascinating dissection of the intersection of money, class, gender, and ethnicity in a fast-changing world.