The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade (available in mass market), 286 pages, 1920

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: I’m a big fan of Wharton’s book House of Mirth.

Synopsis: Newland Archer seems to have everything – good social standing among his New York peers, the luxury of leading the life of a gentleman, and a sweet bride-to-be, May Welland. But the arrival of May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, throws his rigid, conformist 19th-century world into disarray with her free-spirited lack of concern with how society should be run.

Why you should read this book: The Age of Innocence is a book with the ability to pull you into Newland’s world of temptations as he faces his own indecisiveness: can love triumph over the expectations of upper class society? What if the expectations come from within as well as from the people around him? Ellen is an excellently written character; she’s a rather honest and straightforward woman, but she seems like a great mystery to Newland in contrast to May’s seemingly timid and bland personality. Wharton is a subtle writer, but if you find yourself confused, rest assured that there’s probably a brief explanatory sentence on the way. There’s a genuine uncertainty to how the story will end, which pumps some excitement into the final third of the book. A good book if you want to sneak some classics into your summer reading – it’s under three hundred pages and the prose is straightforward and generally easy to follow once you’ve settled into the story.

Why you should avoid this book: In order to show Newland’s uptight social values, the story occasionally takes on a snobbish, old-fashioned attitude that can be a bit dull to read about.

Opening paragraph:

On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

Fabulous quotes:

‘It’s not a time to be profane, Newland…Mother feels badly enough about your not going to church…’
With a groan he plunged back into his book.
Newland! Do listen. Your friend Madame Olenska was at Mrs. Lemuel Struthers’s party last night: she went there with the duke and Mr. Beaufort.’
At the last clause of this announcement a senseless anger swelled the young man’s breast. To smother it he laughed. ‘Well, what of it? I knew she meant to.’
Janey paled and her eyes began to project. ‘You knew she meant to – and you didn’t try to stop her? To warn her?’
‘Stop her? Warn her?’ He laughed again. I’m not engaged to be married to the Countess Olenska!’ The words had a fantastic sound in his own ears.
‘You’re marrying into her family.’
Oh, family – family!’ he jeered.

‘Where did you come from?’ Madame Olenska asked.
He told her and added: ‘It was because I got your note.’
After a pause she said, with a just perceptible chill in her voice: ‘May asked you to take care of me.’
‘I didn’t need any asking.’
‘You mean – I’m so evidently helpless and defenceless? What a poor thing you must all think me! But women here seem not – seem never to feel the need: any more than the blessed in heaven.’
He lowered his voice to ask: ‘What sort of a need?’
‘Ah, don’t ask me! I don’t speak your language.’ she retorted petulantly.
The answer struck him like a blow, and he stood still in the path, looking down at her.
‘What did I come for, if I don’t speak yours?’

Also recommended: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway; Great Expectations by Charles Dickens; Atonement by Ian McEwan.

Also by this author: The Touchstone; Crucial Instances; The Valley of Decision; Sanctuary; The House of Mirth; The Fruit of the Tree; Madame de Treymes; Ethan Frome; The Reef; The Custom of the Country; Summer; The Marne; The Glimpses of the Moon; A Son at the Front; The Mother’s Recompense; Twilight Sleep; The Children; Hudson River Bracketed; Certain People; The Gods Arrive; Human Nature; The World Over; The Buccaneers; Fast and Loose; A Backward Glance; The Decoration of Houses; The Greater Inclination; Crucial Instances; Italian Villas and Their Gardens; The Descent of Man; A Motor-Flight through France; The Hermit and the Wild Woman; Artemis to Actaeon; Tales of Men and Ghosts; Xingu and Other Stories; In Morocco; Old New York; The Writing of Fiction.

Fun tidbit: The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize when Columbia University trustees overturned the jury’s vote for Sinclair Lewis’ book Main Street.

Awards: Pulitzer Prize: winner, 1921.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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