Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Review - The Age of Innocence

When I started reading The Age of Innocence, I was disappointed with my book club's monthly selection.  All these New York City aristocrats from the 1870s; I didn't have anything in common with them.  But as my reading progressed, I came to understand why Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1921.  Her character development was only the introduction to the novel; their personalities were important to the story and needed to be revealed. 

Just as I wrote about Pearl Buck's writing, it's best when authors write about what they know.  Wharton (1862-1937) was born into "Old New York" society.  One of the main characters is Newland Archer, heir to one of the wealthier families in the city.  But he's a bit different than most men his age; he is interested in meeting new people and enjoyed conversation, unlike May, his new wife.  Then along comes Ellen, a cousin who is fleeing the Count she has married, and Newland is asked to oversee her legal problems.
Wharton, from Wikipedia
I saw signs of a strained married right off, when Newland and May were on their honeymoon in Europe.  In a carriage after dining with family friends in England, the following scene occurs:
    During the homeward drive Archer pondered deeply on this episode [meeting the French tutor.]  His hour with M. Riviere had put new air into his lungs, and his first impulse had been to invite him to dinner the next day; but he was beginning to understand why married men did not always immediately yield to their first impulses.
    "That young tutor is an interesting fellow; we had some awfully good talk after dinner about books and things," he threw out tentatively in the hansom.
    May roused herself from one of the dreamy silences into which he had read so many meanings before six months of marriage had given him the key to them.
    "The little Frenchman?  Wasn't he dreadfully common?" she questioned coldly; and he guessed that she nursed a secret disappointment at having been invited out to London to meet a clergyman and a French tutor..."
What struck me most about Age of Innocence is it's study of opposites.  Most obvious are  the two women in Newland's life: the Countess Olenska (Ellen) and May Welland Archer.  Ellen is dark, foreign, exciting.  May is blond, innocent, conventional.  His hurried marriage to May was the biggest mistake in his life, but then there wouldn't be a story unless that had happened.

As I remember, the main story takes place over one or two "seasons."  At the beginning of the book's last chapter, Newland returns to his study from the opening reception of the new galleries at the Metropolitan Museum.  Wharton gives us a hint that many years have passed
"It was the room in which most of the real things of his life had happened.  There his wife, nearly twenty-six years ago, had broken to him, with a blushing circumlocution that would have caused the young women of the generation to smile, the news that she was to have a child; and there their eldest boy, Dallas, too delicate to be taken to church in midwinter, had been christened by their old friend the Bishop of New York..."

Newland and his son go overseas for their last father/son trip and visit Paris before the young man marries.  Newland suddenly finds out that his son has taken them to visit Ellen.  The book is really wonderful and the movie, which was made in 1993 by the same name, is excellent (my DH would call it girlie, though men are a major driving force to the whole story!)  Directed by Martin Scorsese, staring Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Winona Ryder.  Ryder won a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of May Welland Archer and the film won an Oscar for Costume Design.  I would recommend them both!


Erika said...

You know, I just like the title!

Deb, someone commented after you on my post--the "blogmaster" :) can see when people comment by setting up email notification on comments. I just read that so i will have to check out how to do it.

Indira said...

I had always liked the book but the movie is my real favorite. Martin Scorcese does absolute justice to the story (and Nueland's inner life) by having Joanne Woodward do the voiceover. Winona Ryder is so beautiful and perfect for the role.

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