Newland Archer is Old New York.  A favorite Fifth Avenue son of the Gilded Age, he moves effortlessly and seamlessly through its rigid social hierarchies.  And with his impending engagement to May Welland, widely regarded as the most beautiful, elegant and unattainable of the New York belles, Newland’s place in society is secure.  The union of Newland’s family with May’s will bring together New York’s two most powerful ruling clans.  But May’s family, the Mingotts, in addition to being powerful, has its unconventional elements.  May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, nee Mingott, has just returned to New York, fleeing a disastrous marriage to a Polish Count.  New York is scandalized by Ellen’s vaguely foreign ways and her seeming incomprehension of the delicate social balance she has upset simply by imposing her presence and asserting her right to be free from a “scoundrel” husband.  Responding to calls of the family matriarch, May’s grandmother Catherine Mingott, Newland rallies around Ellen as a good soon-to-be Mingott son-in-law should.  He gently smooths over her social stumblings, even using family connections to persuade the revered van der Luydens to rescue Ellen’s reputation when the rest of New York conspires to snub her.  But as Newland finds himself drawn more and more into the role of Ellen’s champion, he simultaneously becomes deeply infatuated with this woman who understands art, literature, and the value of good conversation in a way that his chosen wife never can and never will.  Newland chafes and struggles painfully with the bonds of New York’s expectations for him – wanting nothing more than to desert May and run away with Ellen.  But is he, in the end, capable of choosing love over convention? And does he even really, in his heart of hearts, want to choose?

The Age of Innocence has been on my to-be-read list for years.  It’s a book that I knew was going to be good, and I knew I’d like it once I got started, but it just never cycled to the top.  I was in London when I was hit by an inexplicable urge to pick it up the moment I got home – and I did – and I’m so glad.  When I finally sat down with it, I loved every single page.

First of all, the characters were just perfect.  Newland – with his inner conflict between choosing an “artistic” life and toeing the line.  May, quietly assured, blissfully uncomprehending, almost cold in her conventional perfection – but with the ability to shock Newland by suddenly demonstrating great strength, understanding, and wisdom.  Ellen, so lost and sad, artlessly setting New York tongues on fire with her most innocent gestures, drawn helplessly to Newland but unwilling to allow him to ruin himself for her.  And then the secondary characters – imperious, unconventional “Granny” Catherine Mingott.  Newland’s dull mother and sister.  The criminally cruel and common Julius Beaufort, hypocritical Lawrence Lefferts, comically domestic Wellands and the shy and withdrawn van der Luydens.  Every single one, flawlessly drawn.

Then there was the plot.  You would think a will-he-or-won’t-he infidelity novel set in Gilded Age Manhattan would move slowly. It doesn’t.  It skips along briskly, as you watch Ellen blunder through social gaffe after social gaffe and you see Newland transform from a cousinly champion to a heartbroken would-be lover.  It might be a function of the writing, which is magnificent.  It never bogs down or becomes wordy, but neither is it clipped and terse.  Wharton’s word choices simply set a perfect tone for the underlying events of the novel. I loved the descriptions of the New York scenes through which Newland, May and Ellen move – I felt like I was with them in drawing rooms, carriages, on stately lawns and snowy streets.  And the dialogue was so smooth and natural that I felt as though I could hear the characters saying the words out loud.  It’s no wonder this novel won the Pulitzer Prize – it’s as darn near flawless a book as I ever read.

I’m going to stop the gushing here.  Just go read it.  Please.

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4 thoughts on “THE AGE OF INNOCENCE

  1. Another thing on your to-do list: become a book reviewer. (“… criminally cruel and common …” — she shoots, she scores.)

    You have stirred my long-dormant recollections of Edith Wharton–staunched in tenth grade by the dismal doom, dread and depression (I’m trying) of “Ethan Frome”. “Age of Innocence” was on our summer reading list, but it never stood a chance of making the cut after “Ethan”. You may have revived it–I think I detect a faint pulse.

    • 😀

      For what it’s worth, I didn’t really care for “Ethan Frome” either. It wasn’t my least favorite of all my assigned reading – Emma will kill me, but that dubious honor would have to go to “The Old Man and The Sea.” (Well, hand, what do we feel like doing today? Not reading this book, that’s for sure.) But yeah, I didn’t find “Ethan Frome” to be anything to write home about. “The Age of Innocence” is much, much, much better!

  2. I’m meeting you halfway, for now.
    The 1993 Scorsese film went on the Netflix queue; it will likely be followed by the book in due course, if I follow my usual pattern.
    The Old Man and the Sea did have the advantage of brevity–although relating a fish story in real time does make for a surfeit of contemplation.

    • Enjoy the film! Fun fact: my grandparents took me to audition as an extra, but they had already filled the “young girl” slots when we arrived. Bummer for me.

      I’m thinking of reading “A Moveable Feast” but have to work my way up to it a bit more. “The Old Man and the Sea” just ruined Hemingway for me! (Emma would be so mad at me, but it’s true.)

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