Friday, October 11, 2013

31 Days of Books: The Age of Innocence

Title:  The Age of Innocence

Author:  Edith Wharton

Published: 1920

Year I read it:  2011

One sentence summary:  It's the Golden Age of New York and on the eve of his engagement with the prim and perfectly conventional May Welland, Newland Archer is introduced to her mysterious cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska - only to be plunged into a struggle between duty and desire, honor and honesty.

Interesting fact: 

Three reasons to read it:
  • With a few exceptions, I vastly prefer British authors to American ones (if I count correctly, 17 of my 31 books are by British authors - with several others by immigrants to Britain).  But this book is one of those exceptions: Edith Wharton is the "most British" American author I've read.  Her writing here is excels in the same way British writing excels.  [This may seem vague to some, and it is hard to pinpoint.  There is just something about her writing that, even though her subject is American, her approach feels British.]
  • One of the more sinister evils of the world is hypocrisy - especially in societies that make everything appear one way when the reality is different (like our own?).  This book explores that in what I would call the American version of Victorian-Prudishness.  It's hinted at in the quasi-ironic title, but The Age of Innocence was more about the appearance of innocence, even while men kept mistresses and their wives pretended everything was perfect.  Though fictional, this book challenged me (and my comfort zone) in regards to how real and authentic I and my community are.  [I'm all for "speaking the truth in love" - but especially for the "speaking the truth" part.  I'd rather it be real and ugly for a while than an insecure facade just waiting to crash.  #endrant.]
  • This is another one of those books where the ending made it for me!  I was plugging along near the end, wondering how they would wrap it up and pondering what rating I'd give it on goodreads (out of 5 stars... is it weird I think that way when reading?).  Anyway, I was thinking this is a solid 3 stars - engaging, well written, good characters.  And then bam!  It's subtle, but startling.  For me, it was the perfect way to end the book.  All that to say, I gave it 4 stars, just because of the ending.

One reason you maybe shouldn't:
  • This is sensitive subject material.  What is adultery?  Is it only physical?  What about emotional adultery?  Between a guy and a girl, where is the line between a friendship and something more?  Who's fault is  _____?  There are a lot of things in this book that appear grey, but Wharton makes them multifaceted and, therefore, more real.
Great quotes:

“Each time you happen to me all over again. ” 

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”  

“We can't behave like people in novels, though, can we?” [AH! The meta!!]

“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”

"There they were, close together and safe and shut in; yet so chained to their separate destinies that they might as well been half the world apart."

"[he was] bursting with the belated eloquence of the inarticulate.”  [This is the best description I've ever read of the sensation of l'esprit de l'escalier.]

“It was the old New York way...the way people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than 'scenes,' except those who gave rise to them. ” 

“And you'll sit beside me, and we'll look, not at visions, but at realities.” 

“Everything may be labelled- but everybody is not.”

“And all the while, I suppose," he thought, "real people were living somewhere, and real things happening to them ...”


  1. Is it bad that I have never heard of this book before? It sounds very thought provoking though; I think I must read it! ;) Great review!

  2. No... it's not bad. Age of Innocence is probably a 2nd tier classic.
    But Cami - I think you would really like it :)

  3. I think I would too. Marking it as a must read ;)