Book Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

ageofinnocenceTitle: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Genre: Classic
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: My own copy
First line: On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

The Age of Innocence is the story of Newland Archer, a young man living in the upper circles of New York society after the Civil War. He is newly engaged to May Welland, a young woman of the best social breeding. His life is on the expected path, and he couldn’t be happier – until he meets Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, who is newly separated from her abusive husband.

Countess Olenska desires to divorce her husband, an action that was almost unheard of at the time. As the family and friends and acquaintances of the Archers and Wellands all encourage the Countess to stay married, Archer begins to see the strictures and inequities of the society in which he has spent his life. He is drawn to Ellen and her dark beauty and her mysterious past. While his mind questions the closely held standards he is used to – and especially the restrictions placed on women – his heart begins to fall for the Countess.

Tradition and responsibility are rooted too deeply in Archer, however, and he follows through with his promise to marry May Welland. As he becomes more and more entrenched in the life that has been planned for him, his love for the Countess continues to grow – until a decision will have to be made.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton will now hold a permanent place on my list of all-time favorite classics. Wharton is a brilliant wordsmith, and she perfectly captures the heyday of New York society. Sometimes when I read an older novel (Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Wives and Daughters come to mind), I am a bit distracted by the sheer wordiness, the number of words and sentences, paragraphs and pages, that the author takes to describe the most minute details. Wharton is not that kind of author. She uses just enough detail and just the right words to grab you and plant you firmly in the world of the novel. It’s not very often that I would consider a classic a page-turner (aside from maybe Austen’s works), but this book was very hard to put down.

Wharton explores the themes of family, responsibility, social mores, loyalty, and choices. I wrestled right along with Archer as he struggled to decide between his duty to his suitable wife and his love for the Countess. The author also perfectly captures the hypocrisy of society, the fickleness that has a person in good graces one minute, and the topic of every dinner-table gossip the next.

There are authors who can draw rich characters, others who can put you right into a novel’s setting, still others that can craft a compelling plot. Then there are those, like Wharton, who can do all three, and also write beautiful, thoughtful phrases like these:

It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…

“…EACH TIME YOU HAPPEN TO ME ALL OVER AGAIN…”

…he had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings.

He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime.

Highly recommended.

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26 Responses to Book Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

  1. stacybuckeye says:

    I love to read classics. I think I might have this one on my shelf already and your review makes me want to go find it!
    .-= stacybuckeye´s last blog ..The State of my Blog =-.

  2. JoAnn
    Twitter: lakesidemusing
    says:

    I’m a big fan of Wharton, but haven’t read this yet. I’ve loved The Custom of the Country and House of Mirth, as well as several of her short stories. Will have to find time to read this next year…great review!
    .-= JoAnn´s last blog ..BBAW: Setting Goals =-.

  3. Marie Burton says:

    Wonderful review, I really need to get this one.
    .-= Marie Burton´s last blog ..BBAW Show Off Meme~ I LOVE MY BLOG.. I mean.. I love..YOU! =-.

  4. Jemima says:

    Wonderful review. Have you seen the movie with Michelle Pfeiffer? I also love Edith Wharton’s works. She really knew how to portray the darker side of high society. I had the pleasure of visiting a home/museum of where she lived and wrote for a portion of her career. I blogged about it: http://thereadingjourney.blogspot.com/2009/08/welcome-to.html

    I am glad that you really enjoyed The Age of Innocence. Classic tragic romance stories are my absolute favorite and I enjoy discovering other people who like them too.
    .-= Jemima´s last blog ..Winner #1 =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Jemima – I have seen the movie, though it was ages ago and I plan to re-watch it soon. I’ll definitely check out your post about Wharton!

  5. Trisha says:

    I think this is the fifth time this week I’ve read a review of one of my TBR books and felt I must immediately read it. Thanks for the review! You moved Wharton up my TBR list.
    .-= Trisha´s last blog ..Weekly Geeks: Burn Out =-.

  6. Christy says:

    I agree with your last paragraph. Wharton is just fantastic. I’m currently reading this at the moment and it’s my third Wharton novel. She was a brilliant wordsmith!

  7. Great review, Carrie. I haven’t read anything by this author, but I do want to. This sounds like such a worthwhile book to read.
    .-= Literary Feline´s last blog ..BBAW: Book Giveaway #5 =-.

  8. heidenkind says:

    YAY!!! Carrie, this one of my favorite books of all time. When I saw that you reviewed it, my first thought was, I hope she liked it. I’m so happy you enjoyed it. 🙂
    .-= heidenkind´s last blog ..Life Born of Fire =-.

  9. S. Krishna
    Twitter: skrishna
    says:

    I read this book, though your review had to remind me of the details since it’s been awhile. I remember enjoying it though, great review!
    .-= S. Krishna´s last blog ..CHALLENGE: Clear Off Your Shelves 2009 =-.

  10. Kim
    Twitter: BookstoreK
    says:

    Loved this book, in the beginning I kept thinking, how do the characters interpret how each of them feel when they speak to each other so obliquely? Then there is this build of emotion and tense restraint that it feels like it’s dripping from the walls. Edith Wharton is a genius.
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..Time to Vote for the Best National Book Award Fiction =-.

  11. Les in NE says:

    I’ve read this a couple of times and loved it equally, as well as the movie. Wharton is one of my favorite authors. I enjoyed The Custom of the Country and House of Mirth, as well as The Children and Ethan Frome. I wouldn’t recommend The Buccaneers, which was her last unpublished novel. A Wharton scholar completed the work and it was published in 1933. Disappointing, to say the least.

    Another wonderful “classic” author is Willa Cather. My Antonia is very well-known, but I loved Death Comes For the Archbishop, as well as O’ Pioneers! Song of the Lark was just ok.
    .-= Les in NE´s last blog ..Mailbox Monday =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Les – I will definitely be reading more of Wharton! And I read Death Comes for the Archbishop earlier this year and loved it, too. 🙂

  12. hopeinbrazil says:

    Thanks for the good review and the great quotes. I’ll be looking for this one.
    .-= hopeinbrazil´s last blog ..The Guernsey Literary and Pototo Peel Pie Society =-.