Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, Wharton was the first woman to receive that honor. I've read another of her books, Ethan Frome and I decidedly preferred The Age of Innocence.

Our protagonist, Mr. Newland Archer, is a well-to-do young man in Old New York. He's a respected member of society, about to become engaged to a lovely, nice girl from one of the best families in the city and he values the old New York propriety and tradition. Of course, that all goes straight to hell right from the get-go. The night he and May announce their engagement, Newland falls in love with May's cousin the Countess Olenska who is recently estranged from her Polish husband.

Wharton writes with one eye on the excruciating detail necessary to give the reader the true picture of the structured and suffocating New York society and the other on the complex characters who are each lovable in their conventional and unconventional strengths and weaknesses.

I find it interesting that the story is told from Newland's perspective, not that of his loyal and proper wife or his troubled love. Perhaps it is telling of the opportunities for philosophy and freedom that were the domain of men at that time. Anyway, despite his determination to buck convention and abandon the society that carefully raised him, Newland is after all a slave to propriety. He cannot even articulate his desires to anyone but the Countess, who remains largely an enigma in the story. Their meetings are infrequent, and though they are passionate and emotional the two are never physical. This is actually the one thing I recall from Ethan Frome, Frome is in love with someone other than his wife and the culminating act of betrayal in the novel is when the two hold either end of a handkerchief.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it. Wharton's tone conveys irony and disgust with the conventionalities of the society she was raised in and there is a subtle humor that is really enjoyable. Lastly, though the plot is far from complex, it kept me guessing and I found the ending to be quite a surprise. It was sad, part bittersweet part disappointment, but it doesn't pander.

Incidentally, I'll move the film to the top of my Netflix queue and do a follow-up on the movie interpretation. The film was directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder. Generally I dislike the film version of books I enjoy, but the cast and Scorsese factor have me a bit excited.

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