Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Aside from Ethan Frome, which I don't count as the setting and storyline as so very different from her NYC-society books, I expect Age is the Edith Wharton book most people read. Yet, I read Custom of the Country and House of Mirth first, go figure. Partly, it was due to me not liking the movie, and after reading the book (with Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer popping into my head unwanted, repeatedly), I like it even less.

This book is like a gem. Some could say that nothing much happens, while it's also easy to argue that everything happens. Immediately after his engagement to May, Archer is reintroduced to May's cousin Ellen, who has returned to New York after a disastrous European marriage. Archer immediately falls for Ellen, marries May anyway, and then proceeds to attempt an affair with Ellen. A glance across a room, a touch of a hand - tiny, seemingly insignificant things mean the world in this society.

Throughout my reading, I puzzled over the title. Who was or were the Innocents? I think Archer thought May was the Innocent for most of the book, up until nearly the end when she reveals just how much she truly did know. And at that point, Archer looked like the Innocent, for thinking he was being so sly and they May would never figure out what was going on between him and Ellen. Ellen would never be accused of being an innocent. Thanks to her European sojourn, she now knows much more about the world than she ever wanted. The only thing she's Innocent of is New York Society. Although she likely know more about them as well. They thinks he's ignorant because of her behavior, but I suspect she knows quite well what her behavior will result in and makes her choices with open eyes (although Archer thinks her an innocent of a kind as well - certainly of Society).

It's interesting that Wharton wrote this book in the 1920s, and it takes place in the 1870s. I wish my introduction had talked about that gap. I suppose that the whole era, the obsession with dresses and dinners and opera and gossip, seem innocent to Americans of the 1920s who had just been through The Great War. Fifty years in a long time to look back. Also interesting to think that when this book was taking place, Laura Ingalls Wilder was a very young girl. Their stories don't just seem to be half a continent and 10 years apart - they seem worlds apart. New York Society was very insular and unaware of the outside world.

Wharton's language is very precise, very sharp, but lovingly crafted. None of the characters really connected for me personally. In the middle of the book I was able to put it down for a week and not once wonder what was going to happen to them. It wasn't a book I found at all difficult to read, but it wasn't one I got personally invested in either. I felt Wharton held me at arm's length for this book (which was definitely NOT true of House of Mirth or Custom of the Country.) So, an excellent book, but not my favorite Wharton.

I bought this book at an independent bookstore where I used to work, with my employee discount.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

I read, and loved, the book first, and then tried the movie. Horrible! I only lasted about ten minutes and turned it off. The best part of her novels is the writing, which of course isn't going to be conveyed in a movie.
House of Mirth is my favorite so far of hers.