Friday, September 30, 2016

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I knew from earlier experience (Ethan Frome) that Edith Wharton could be heavy and gloomy, so I braced myself for The Age of Innocence.

Sure enough, Wharton paints a vivid tale of the empty lives of upper crust New Yorkers in the 1880s. The story is written so well that it won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1921 - the first time that prize was accorded to a woman.

Young Newland Archer is a rich, semi-employed lawyer (he doesn't really need to work, but he goes through the motions) who is in love with beautiful socialite May Welland. They are unquestioningly following all the conventions for their crowd when suddenly May's "bohemian" cousin, Ellen Olenska arrives from Europe.

Madame Olenska is fleeing an abusive husband and seeking divorce. Newland is persuaded by the family to talk her out of it since they want to avoid scandal and unpleasantness at all costs. As his relationship develops with Ellen he reconsiders all of his former values.

Wharton convinces the reader that throwing caution and convention to the winds is the surest road to happiness, but will our protagonist be brave enough to do it? As a believer in the sanctity of marriage vows, I was in constant agony throughout the book that he would leave his "dull"  wife and flee with the exciting cousin. Thankfully, Wharton does not give us a fluffy Hollywood ending. And, frankly, I was stunned by the clear-sightedness of the women in the story who had a firmer grip on reality than Archer, who thought his love for Ellen was the only "real thing."

I couldn't help but compare this book to Tuck Everlasting, a story in which a young girl chooses a prosaic life over one of adventure and it is seen as the more noble act. In Age of Innocence, the domestic life is seen as the cowardly choice.

This book is masterfully written, deeply disturbing, and surprising in its insights.

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