Skip to main content

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.

Popular posts from this blog

Review: Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor

Forever Amber takes place in the 1660s, immediately follwing Charles II's ("the Merry Monarch") return of the Stuarts to the English throne. The book features Amber St. Claire, a young woman who starts out as a sixteen-year-old country girl, naieve to the workings of the world. She immediately meets Bruce Carlton, a dashing young Cavalier, with whom she has a passionate love affair in choppy intervals throughout the book. They have two children together, but Bruce won't marry her for the reason he tells his friend Lord Almsbury: that Amber just isn't the kind of woman one marries.

Upon following Bruce to London, he goes to Virginia, leaving her to fend for herself. What follows is a series of affairs and four marriages, with Bruce coming back from America now and then. Amber's marriages are imprudent: her first husband is a gambler, her second is an old dotard, her third locks her up in the house for days and won't let her out; and the last is a fop who a…

Review: This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart

Pages: 254Original date of publication: 1964My edition: 1964 (William Morrow)Why I decided to read: it was 90 degrees outside at the time and I decided it was time to read another book by a favorite authorHow I acquired my copy: from Susanna Kearsley, December 2009Sometimes, whether or not I decide to read a book depends on the weather. Mary Stewart’s books are best read on either very hot or very cold days; and since it was 90 degrees out one weekend a couple of weeks ago, I decided that this one would be perfect. And it was.This Rough Magic takes its title from The Tempest, a play from which this novel takes off. Lucy Waring is a struggling actress who comes to visit her sister on Corfu. One of her neighbors is a renowned actor who’s taken a bit of a sabbatical and his son, a musician with whom Lucy comes to blows at first. This Rough Magic is vintage Mary Stewart, with a murder or two, a mystery, romance, suspense, and lots of magic thrown in. Lucy is your typical Mary Stewart hero…

Review: Joy in the Morning, by Betty Smith

Pages: 294
Original date of publication: 1963
My edition: 2010 (Harper Perennial)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Barnes and Noble, Phoenix, January 2011


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my all-time favorite books and I’ve read it, oh, half a dozen times, so I was interested to see how Joy in the Morning would compare.

Set in the late 1920s, Joy in the Morning begins when Annie, aged 18, comes to a small Midwestern college town where her fiancĂ©e, Carl, is in law school. The novel opens with their marriage in the county courthouse, and follows the couple through their first year or so of marriage. It’s a struggle, because Carl and Annie are basically children themselves, for all the ways in which Carl tries to appear more adult-like.

Annie is endearing; she’s ignorant but a voracious reader, reading everything from Babbitt to War and Peace. Betty Smith’s novels are pretty autobiographical; Joy in the Morning is (unofficially) a kind of sequel to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—cert…