My friend Bill and I choose a novel to read and discuss online. This time it’s Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, which I find vexing. Published in 1921, Age of Innocence is a look back at New York society of the late 19th century’s wealthy class. It starts with the main character, Newland Archer a callow, complaining young man, who fancies himself superior to all around him. He takes no serious interest in his work or any endeavor. When Newland is about to announce his engagement to the pretty and docile May Welland, her exotic cousin Countess Ellen Olenska appears fleeing Europe and her aristocratic, boorish, brute of a husband. Soon Newland is captivated.
Most of the story is about Newland’s infatuation with the passionate Ellen, whom he’s willing to desert his young wife May for. Ellen goes back and forth between tempting and repelling Newland.
Much of the book consists of Newland’s thoughts on how awful New York society is. This slice of the upper crust is insulated and vapid and it’s easy for Newland, who doesn’t realize he’s no better, looks down on all around him. He’s cultivated no friendships. Unlike many of his era, he doesn’t strike out on his own creating new ventures or exploring new interests. For the most part he spends his time mentally criticizing May and plotting to find time to spend with Ellen, who under her surface of panache doesn’t seem to offer much substance that’s original or creative. She’s a flibbertigibbet in a Worth gown.
While Wharton has a knack for wit and description, she aims at a view of a past society that excludes its finer points, such as charity and inventiveness. I wish she had taken a shot at her own era more directly and that she had included at least a couple characters I could admire. Because it featured so much sniping at tedious, stereotypical characters I found the book a chore to get through.
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