The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton was no. 1 on my classic club list and a book I had wanted to read for a long time.
Set in 1870’s New York, it is the story of the upper class elite, specifically Newland Archer, his fiancé – beautiful if slightly shallow – May, her cousin Ellen – who has just returned from Europe after (scandalously) leaving her husband – and their families and friends, the majority of whom are narrow-minded, judgemental and determined to live within a strict set of rules governing behaviour for their social circle.
From the outset, this means an unwillingness to accept Ellen when she arrives back in New York – especially as she has made the mistake of wearing an unsuitable address for her first public appearance, causing a stir and much comment. Eager to help her cousin, May asks Newland to be nice to her, hoping others will then follow suit. Eager to help his fiancé, Archer goes one step further, announcing their engagement – tying his well-respected family to theirs in the eyes of the public.
It’s only then that Archer starts to get to know Ellen. And like her. She is a free spirit, unwilling (unable it seems) to bend her will to the world around her. She follows her heart, has the strength of her convictions, and a love of life.. She is, in fact, a female version of everything Archer secretly wishes he was but finds he can’t be. Because of this, he starts to question the decision to marry May, who lives life on the surface. She is a woman who is happy in their world and finds nothing in it she would like to change.
Torn between his commitment to May and his growing love for Ellen, Archer struggles to do the right thing. The problem is does he do the right thing for himself or for his wife and family? As he fights against society’s constraints, he doesn’t seem to realise that those around him are aware of how he is feeling and are working to make sure he does what’s right and proper (in their not so humble opinion).
Eventually, after much too-ing and fro-ing, Archer does what is expected not what he wants and the romantic in me was incredibly disappointed – in Archer, Ellen, and – unfortunately – the book, which I had started out really enjoying. I found the writing funny and sharp and Edith Wharton does a brilliant job sending up a buttoned-up world where appearances trump everything else, including logic. After a while though, I got a bit bored. The characters started to annoy me – I just wanted Archer to make a decision and stop faffing around. When he didn’t I lost interest. The writing too, which had first amused me, started to wear a bit. It was all too clever and witty and seemed to lack anything deeper. I know I’m probably in the minority with this – it did win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction after all – and I feel the need to say sorry for not liking it but it just wasn’t for me. Sorry!