Edith Wharton rules the world. After reading House of Mirth a couple of years ago I immediately ran out to purchase The Age of Innocence knowing that I would love it. Of course, since my to-read bookshelf is approximately 100 books long – it took a while for me to pick up Innocence, but the wait perhaps made my reading even better! I am now a certifiable Wharton stan. Please do not judge this book by its first sentence:
On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.
Ok, so we’re in 1870s New York at the Opera. Newland Archer is our protagonist and has just become engaged to May Welland. Before their engagement can be announced, May’s exotic European cousin, Ellen Olenska, arrives at the Opera – word on the street is that she’s practically a ruined woman – husband cheats on her, she leaves husband and cheats on him, and now she’s back in the States. Bam! Love triangle. And you thought Days of Our Lives had all the drama!
In a more symbolic reading, Innocence is a novel about feeling trapped and feeling a desperate desire to escape. The characters are trapped in Old New York society, in customs, rituals, and traditions that dictate every move they make – from what flowers they buy, to the clothes they wear (always two seasons old!), and even to what time they should arrive at the opera (fashionably late!). New York City is this stifling box of life – Newland believes he wants to escape personified by his enchantment with Ellen – but actually he never does anything to free himself because he is so perfectly suited to the life he is currently living. Such an interesting character study.
While listening to a podcast about the book, a participant made a really great point that hadn’t occurred to me. The Age of Innocence isn’t so much a book about an affair; rather it’s a book about a marriage. Throughout the novel, May is perceived as be simple, ordinary, and dull – a normal, all-American wife. But in the end, May is the woman you will be left astounded by, not Ellen. You’ll be left pondering her relationship with Newland and almost forget that Ellen even existed – and you’ll never see it coming until the last few pages!
If you’re willing to put in the time, Edith Wharton is a writer that will only add to your reading experience. You’ll learn about the society and customs of the Gilded Age of New York, you’ll visit the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, and you’ll meet male and female characters that will live inside of you long after the last sentenced has ended.
If you are interested in the podcast I listened to, please visit http://www.neabigread.org/. You’ll find podcasts dedicated to many novels, including my current read – The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.
Rating – 5/5
Published – 1920
Pages – 307
Also highly recommended – The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton or start with her novella Ethan Frome or even a short story!
P.S. – Martin Scorsese adapted the novel into a film! I haven’t watched, but hope to soon. See the trailer below: