February 4, 2009

The Age of Innocence: Review

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Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is a story of Old New York manners and traditions. Newland Archer, having just announced his engagement to young May Welland, falls hard for her cousin, the enigmatic Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen's appearance in New York society is shocking. She has left her blackguard of a husband in Europe to return her own family. If Ellen expects open arms, she's in for a rude awakening. Newland himself must choose between family duty and true love. Just how will this all turn out?

As always, Wharton writes about people in a pickle. Always they seem to have extraordinarily bad timing. Always they get in the way of their own happiness. The Age of Innocence belongs to a time when societal obligation invariably supersedes personal fulfillment. At times, the novel was a satire; the traditions of the upper crust verged on ridiculous. Most of the time, I found it painful to read of the unwritten rules that couldn't be broken. The most frustrating of all was how no one ever spoke of anything 'unpleasant'. Maybe if they had, they would have had a better understanding of one another and more compassion.

Although Newland is the protagonist of the story, I found him to be the weakest character. As a man, he had more options than a woman in his place would have. Instead, he caves into the expectations of the family. He gets played, by just about everyone, but especially the women.

Women didn't have any political or financial power but they ruled Society. An invitation to the right party could make or break you. Ellen's grandmother fights hard to have her accepted, but Ellen is not really one of them. She sees the rules of Society as something not too be taken too seriously. They amuse her more than anything. After a short time, the family gets tired of Ellen. The more Ellen tries to free herself from her old life, the more her family tries to push her back in.

May is a character who is not what she seems. She appears to be all innocence, someone Newland can mould into the perfect wife. He finds that it's not that easy. May has learned the rules and manners necessary to get what she wants. He has briefs moments of realization that he's just a puppet, but it's short lived.

I'm not sure how I feel about The Age of Innocence. The writing is beautiful, of course, but I found it hard to relate to any of the characters. I sometimes felt sorry for Newland but most often found him arrogant and weak. The women were interesting but I could never figure out how they really felt about anything. In the end, I would recommend The Age of Innocence for it's view of Old New York Society and the terrific writing.

15 comments :

  1. This is one that's grown on me...I had to read it for three different courses in college, and, being the nerd I am, I actually re-read it each time. And each time, I liked it more. Great review of a classic!

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  2. This is actually one of my favorite books, although I haven't read it in a while now. I just love that restrained feel and how people hide from themselves. I don't necessarily think it's the right way to be, but I think it adds a certain amount of emotional depth. Anyway, it's definitely time for a re-read here.

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  3. I have not read this book, but I've seen the movie...maybe it is time to pick up the book.

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  4. I loved this book. I did not always like the charaters or their actions but I loved the way Edith Wharton captures the era and makes it come alive for the reader.

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  5. Rebecca- I can see myself re-reading it.

    Meghan- I think that's what frustrated me, the hiding from themselves.

    Serena- I had seen the movie also. I had the actors in my head as I was reading.

    Daibhin- I love how Wharton writes as well.

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  6. I'm a huge fan of Edith Wharton...I re read this one every couple of years. It does get better with each reading.

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  7. Edith Wharton is probably one of my favorite authors.
    If I had to choose a most beloved book it would have to be "The House of Mirth".....I really enjoyed that book for some reason. I often recommend it to others, and they don't always find it an easy read. To each their own, when it come to books I guess:-)

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  8. I loved this book. It's been probably 15 years since I read it but I still remember how much I enjoyed it.

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  9. I read this a few years ago and really enjoyed it! For some reason though I wasn't inspired to pick up any of her other books.

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  10. I absolutely loved this book. I felt like I was brought in to personal thoughts and internal struggles. I liked the characters and felt sorry for them, being stuck as they were in that age.

    It was my first Wharton novel and I think people tend to like the first novel they read by her the best. Just a thought.

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  11. I read this one and The House of Mirth a couple of years ago. Definitely liked this one better. I have Ethan Frome around here somewhere. Will get to it eventually!

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  12. I read this book, but didn't realize it's a satire! (Does that make me stupid? I'm not sure.) Anyways, thanks for this review, it actually helps me to understand the book better!

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  13. Michele- I think I will reread it at some point.

    Rachael- House of Mirth is my favorite as well.

    Bookfool- Think you'll read it again?

    Marg- House of Mirth and Ethan Frome are quite good too.

    Rebecca- You might be right. House of Mirth was my first and I really loved it.

    Andi- Ethan Frome is good too- just really sad.

    Krishna- A bit of satire. She really pokes fun at all the manners- especially the dress and food ones.

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  14. Thanks for the review! I read this so long ago but should probably revisit it. I loved the social satire that you mentioned, and for whatever reason, I can still remember that line about how the opera performers at the beginning of the story are the "paid purveyors of rich men's pleasures." Wharton really hit the nail on the head with so much of this book.

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  15. I've been an an Edith Wharton binge for the last year or so--reading her for the first time, in fact. I read House of Mirth not long ago and "painful" is exactly the word for how it feels to read Wharton. Age of Innocence is next on my list, when I'm ready to read Wharton again, although I plan to read her biography in the meantime.

    Thanks for the review! I'm not worried about spoilers. I've read enough Wharton to know that happy endings are not to be expected!

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