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Review: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton


Pages: 366
Original date of publication: 1920
My edition: 1992 (Collier)
Why I decided to read: the 1001 Books to Read Before you Die list
How I acquired my copy: the Philadelphia Book Trader, March 2011


“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done of even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…” (Ch. 6).

Newland Archer is a member of upper-crust, Gilded Age New York Society, about to marry May Welland, a naive heiress. He becomes attracted to May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, back in New York after disgracing herself. Part of her attraction for Newland is the fact that she is so free-spirited, and so a struggle ensues: will Newland choose the conventional path with May, or will he flaunt society’s expectations of him and choose the Countess?

Edith Wharton’s observations of Gilded Age New York are extremely incisive; although she was a part of the society she wrote about, she was nevertheless able to see the forest for the trees, so to speak. The society she writes about was limiting, in which everyone did more or less the same things over and over again, day after day; so it’s easy to see why Newland finds the Countess Olenska so fascinating. I think he’s not so much in love with her as he is with the lifestyle she represents. It’s also easy to see, conversely, how New York society sees her as a threat, too. The Age of Innocence was written in 1920, nearly fifty years after it’s set; and so the novel is not so much a polemic about an ongoing issue. But it’s a fascinating look into the way that things were; and, maybe, still are in upper-crust New York society. I love Edith Wharton’s prose style, too; it’s not sophisticated, but she gets her point across succinctly.

Comments

Ashley said…
I really enjoyed this book. I only wish that I had read it in college as part of a class to really dissect this era.
Karen K. said…
I love Edith Wharton but I did find this book rather slow. It was my first Wharton and I've since read several others -- I should go back and reread and see if that changes my perception. I do really love House of Mirth -- if you haven't read it I highly recommend it.
celia said…
One of the things I enjoy about Wharton is her ability to engage me with both her characters and plots, even when she's being "cute" (thinking of Ethan Frome here). I find her rendering of the undercurrents of social discourse irresistible and still very true, which is a little scary perhaps.

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