September 27, 2007

Review:The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence
by Edith Wharton
321 pages
First Sentence:
On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

It's a bit of a boring introduction sentence, especially since the book is neither about Christine Nilsson or the Academy of Music, but Edith Wharton likes to display "pop NY culture" in her novels, perhaps as a way of saying, "Hey, I'm one of one Old NY. I know your trends and tastes." Edith Wharton was born into New York's elite. And she despised it and what it represented.

Our story opens with the formal announcement of the engagement of Newland Archer and his beloved, May Welland, and the introduction of a would be scandal, May's cousin Countess Ellen Olenska's recent fleeing from her dastardly husband. We never find out what exactly her husband has done but it is common knowledge that he is a scoundrel and she had every right to leave to protect herself. While everyone concedes that Ellen is not to blame, society has a hard time accepting her boldness in desiring a divorce(to leave is all right but to divorce is not allowed). As Ellen is completely different than Newland's native Old New York he soon falls madly in love with her. He then must chose between love and duty.

I can't say much about Wharton's ideology without giving away the plot. The ending was a little puzzling at first(as seems to be her trademark) but with a little analysis it becomes a story that is rich with moral guidance. After reading some of Hermione Lee's thick biography about Wharton I can see that she may have been writing these novels to speak to herself as much as society. She struggled in a loveless marriage for many many years before divorcing. There was at least one man to whom she was extremely close to both before the divorce and after. There was also an affair at one point. Edith's life was very unsatisfying and depressing except for her writing.

This was the first book I've completed for the Reading the Author Challenge. It's also on my list for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. I recently purchased Summer and Short Stories by Wharton. I will try to read at least one Wharton book a month.

BTW, the picture at the top is on the cover of my B&N version of The Age of Innocence. I couldn't find a picture of the cover so I looked up the artwork(I love those colors!). I think I have found a new artist to admire. James Tissot's work is full of the beauty of the Victorian age. I will be asking for a book of his artwork for Christmas. It will snuggle nicely next to Leighton, Renoir and Waterhouse.


Eva said...

I enjoyed this book, but you're right about Wharton's endings. They always kind of through me for a loop.

I'm almost afraid to read Lee's bio, since I've heard Wharton had a really depressing life. I tend to avoid books that make me sad-I'm a wimp!

Petunia said...

Eva-I have found Lee's biography very interesting so far but it's really dealt more with the socio-economic atmosphere of Wharton's environments and only a little with her relationships up to page 200. It's not a biography written like any other I've ever read before.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

I'm glad to see this review because I need to read this book soon (for Book Awards and Decades) and after Howards End I'm really dreading it. Funny how one book can do that. And thanks for including some of the background information--sometimes that helps put things into context.

Petunia said...

I am fascinated by the background info. on whatever I've read. It makes a work more significant, at least in my mind.

You may want to read something fun before starting this one. The details can bog one down.

Anonymous said...

This is one Wharton I have never read and it sounds like it sets up an interesting dilemma. It also does seem like Wharton wrote her books to help sort out her own marriage - but she comes up with some interesting conclusions.