Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
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.