Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Period Piece Challenge: The Age of Innocence

(1920 First Edition Cover)

Love, honor, betrayal and high society in Old New York?  I'm in!  That's how I felt after reading the back (I know, I know, notoriously unreliable) of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and I am so glad I picked up this little gem.  It won a Pulitzer, after all.  I read Ethan Frome (HIGHLY underrated and truly a worthwhile read) in high school and so I was intrigued by this completely different approach from Ms. Wharton.  From the stark landscape of a wintery and rural Massachusetts to the bustling and somewhat dreary hub of 1870's New York, although her focus seemed to remain on the whole honor and duty theme, I thoroughly enjoyed her characters and her in-depth descriptions of life in the upper crust of the Big Apple.

(Love the classic cover art on this one)
I will give you a fair warning, this is NOT a high-action, edge of your seat story.  Most of it is very . . . internal.  You really get inside the characters' heads and there are a lot of thoughts and emotions, plenty of ALL CAPS FEELINGS, and weighty choices to process.  Then again, I tend to really enjoy these types of stories; especially when this type of writing is coupled with a complete picture of the historical setting.  This is something Wharton should really win an award for.  Not only does she lay out moral dilemmas and deep complicated characters with ease, the woman really knows how to set a scene.  She makes it oh-so-easy to picture the story unfolding in your mind.  From the women's lace-laden dresses to the decor of a Manhattan mansion; from the the smell of the cigars in the drawing room to the bustling boxes at the opera, Wharton is a true wordsmith and it is a pleasure to be swept up in her vocabulary and attention to detail.  One thing about Wharton's particular writing style that you will either love or hate, she forces you to pay attention and keep up.  Her descriptions of upper-class New York are rife with family names (most of them varying by only one initial), distant relations, and specific geographical locations that no 21st Century non-New Yorker could ever hope to understand.   Most of the names are inconsequential, but they set the tone for the deep family connections and the expected propriety, hypocritical or not, of the time.
The Story 
Newland Archer, a semi-prominent and well-to-do young New York lawyer is pledged to marry the beautiful and innocent May Welland.  By any account it's a smart match and they announce their engagement the evening that May's scandalous cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, arrives back in New York after leaving her scoundrel-of-a-husband in Europe.  Ellen is dark, exotic and intriguing and it doesn't take long before Newland is completely enthralled with her and her sense of mystery.  She is unlike any proper, well-bred New York heiress; she represents an opportunity for escape from the mundane and predictable life he is bound to lead if married to May.  Newland continues his engagement, urging May to push up the date of the wedding, while at the same time falling deeply in love with Ellen who happens to be a dear friend to May.  Ah, the classic love triangle.  So predictable and yet so useful in illustrating themes such as the duplicitous nature of high society and its moral standards.  You see, Newland is bound by his sense of duty and propriety to marry May despite his feelings for Ellen.  He even talks Ellen out of divorcing her husband (even though it seals off an avenue of possibility for their relationship).  May and Newland do eventually marry (shocker there, I know) and Ellen continues to encourage Newland to remain faithful to May despite her growing feelings for him.  Tension-filled moments of lost opportunity and forbidden desire abound throughout the book and serve to carry the reader through a rather cerebral literary experience to the end and what turns out to be a very satisfying conclusion.  I'll leave it to you to find out the details, but here is a short list of my favorite "Moments of ALL CAPS FEELINGS":
1.   Newland and Countess Olenska in a darkened corner of the Beaufort's ballroom - hand on knee!
2.  Newland in Countess Olenska's drawing room part I
3.  Newland in Countess Olenska's drawing room part II (EAT THE RAVIOLI!  DON'T EAT THE RAVIOLI!  WHY AM I SO CONFLICTED?)
4.  Newland and Countess Olenska in the Patroon's house at Skuytercliff
5.  Newland and Countess Olenska together in the carriage on the way to Catherine Manson Mingott's house
6.  Newland and Countess Olenska in a dark hallway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
7.  May and Newland in the drawing room after the Opera
8.  Newland outside of Ellen's Paris apartment (WHY DOES IT HAVE TO END THIS WAY??  I'm really ok with it but then again I am not.)

The Characters
May Welland (the future Mrs. Newland Archer) - May represents everything that is good and honorable and innocent in the world, which incidentally makes her a pretty one-dimensional character.  You cannot help but try to like her; only because you feel as if you should.  You might not succeed, but you do want to try.  She is pretty, athletic, terribly duty-bound and she doesn't care that society has completely sucked all of the individuality out of her soul and replaced it with a Stepford-like perfection that really grates on the nerves.  You know from the very first time you see her that she is too perfect and that things just really aren't going to work out for her.  Alas, you are forced to watch her attempts to rescue and maintain her innocent and oblivious life.  Poor May.  The girl does makes one major move in the story - one life-altering, climactic move that seals her loved-ones' fates - and I have to admit that I was proud of her for it.  Frustrated and slightly dismayed, but proud nonetheless.
Newland Archer - Not exactly a knight in shining armor type, Newland represents the moral dilemma that Wharton so deftly illustrates in the book.  He puts on the required facade and goes through the proper rituals of an engagement and marriage in high-society when he would really rather be having a steamy affair with his soon-to-be wife's trollop of a cousin.  Don't get me wrong, there were times when I was totally rooting for Newland and Ellen to get together -pretty much throughout the entire book because May just really doesn't have a personality to speak of.  But the fact that Newland was leading May on, someone so innocent and pure, while trying to ignore/not trying hard enough to ignore his feelings for another woman who was DEFINITELY off limits just made me cringe a little. Okay, a lot.   You see, I understand the internal conflict.  I even understand how he could think of saying "Screw propriety and morality, I am in love!"  I am just not sure I can admire that quality in Newland.  By the end of the book I was definitely a fan of the man.  His choices eventually shape him into an admirable husband and father, but there is still something I just never will like about his character.
Countess Ellen Olenska - I am not really sure whether or not Wharton wanted me to like Ellen, but I have to say that I LOVED her character.  Sure, she made some pretty bad decisions.  But I always felt the world was against her.  Despite her past, she attempted to act honorably, at least toward May.  She had tons of baggage to deal with and enough personality to manage it. I liked her energy, her international air, and her nonchalance.  She had plenty of flaws, but, unlike Newland, she wasn't ever trying to hide who she was.  She knew she made mistakes, but she stood by them and put them out in the open.  She was extremely real and I appreciated the honesty and transparency of her character, especially considering the time period.  May was far more of a positive moral example, but I am pretty sure that the Countess Olenska had more fun.
(Edith Wharton modeled much of Newland Archer's character after herself and her own interests and talents)
This book is definitely not for everyone.  I recommend it with a grain of salt.  You have to seriously love serious literature and you have to be in the mood to pay attention.  You also have to thoroughy enjoy highly in-depth historical novels.  That being said, I LOVED this book.  Wharton created fascinating characters with deep relationships that blurred that black and white line between right and wrong when emotions are involved.  There were several times when I wanted to crawl inside and talk the characters into making a decision completely contrary to my (and their, for that matter) moral code. The tension between the characters is palpable, as is the tension between their physical desires and their desire to adhere to high moral standards (even if they have already shattered them at some point).
The ending is really sweet and very poignant.  This story lacks the bitter irony and tragedy of Ethan Frome.  It is resolute in its conclusion and you get the sense that, while no one got everything they wanted (except maybe poor May Welland) everyone was okay in the end simply because they had led their lives in a loving honorable way.
If you read if for nothing else, read it for the beautifully articulate descriptions of New York.  Where is my time machine?  I'd like to go back to this opulent and fabulous time period, please.

("The Age of Innocence" by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the inspiration for Wharton's title)

1 comment:

  1. This is the book I had just started reading during the "weekend of infamy" in Scotland and ever since I have treated it as cursed? blessed? I don't know! But for some reason I blamed the book and left it alone, treating it like Jumanji. Maybe one day I will brave it again... But since I HATE ETHAN FROME, things do not look promising.

    Bahaha! I burst out laughing when I read the ravioli reference. DON'T EAT THE RAVIOLI!!!!! Why is that analogy so perfect?! We really must explain that one to our dear readers one of these days...

    Anyway, old New York? YES PLEASE!