Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton - Book Review #61

Wednesday, August 4, 2010
The Age of Innocence
by Edith Wharton

Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.”

This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.

Can one decision form and define your life and another wreck it completely? I don’t think that anything is as black and white in life as this statement is and it seems to me neither Edith Wharton thinks so. A lot of components and tiny details shape our lives and even at the edge of making a decision, I don’t think we are able to comprehend all these components and make a correct prediction on how this or that decision will influence our future.

Why I started to talk about life defining decisions? Because I think this is main theme of The Age of Innocence – decision between love, passion and social obligations, family duty. Newland Archer – a protagonist of the novel – facing probably one of the toughest and fundamental decisions: do you live for yourself, trying to chase that elusive happiness or do you live for others and maybe one day down the road you will achieve the satisfaction by seeing the happiness of others around you brought by your actions.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is an amazing novel that cannot be described nether by one word not by a thousand. At the beginning the novel reads like a gossip column, but also Wharton’s writing makes it unbelievably visual. I could almost see two hypothetical gossip girls from the mid 19th century, one whispering to another the latest news, covering her lips with a fan. I could almost see the eyebrows shot up and big round eyes of the second girl and a quiet “Ah” on the inhale coquettishly covered by elegant hand in a lace glove. Wharton’s writing did amazing things to my mind – she was just introducing the characters and my imagination added these gossip girls as if they were talking about those people. The author, same as her characters, does not converse everything to the reader, but at the same time, using different techniques, she does not allow the reader to pass through without an understanding what’s actually going on.

Sometimes Wharton’s prose is hilarious, insightful and full of irony:

His heart sank, for he saw that he was saying all the things that young men in the same situation were expected to say, and that she was making the answers that instinct and tradition though her to make – even to the point of calling him original.

[...]since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was moulded: such as the duty of using two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel to part his hair, and never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.

At other times Wharton’s prose is wise:

Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!

However, at any time, her prose is phenomenal, her story is unforgettable and her characters are divine. I’m sure that I wasn’t able to make the justice to The Age of Innocence it deserves with my review, so my advise – if you haven’t read it, grab the book and do this now. You will be surprised how much you going to love it.


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