The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton – book review

I lived in Manhattan last year, and the whole time I was there this was on my to-read list. Edith Wharton is considered New York literary royalty, you simply must read at least this one and The House of Mirth if you live in New York. The story is set in 1870s Manhattan, a period I am quite interested in, because that’s when they built a place very close to my heart, Central Park. Wharton lived in New York in the 1870s, although this book wasn’t published until 1920.

Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer prize with The Age of Innocence, and I have seen and liked the movie so I had high expectations for this novel. Imagine my disappointment when the first eight or so chapters sent me to sleep. Literally. I struggled to get into it, because whenever I picked it up I nodded off, and as a result it took about three days to read the first 70 pages, and another three days to get through the rest. That first 70 pages is slow-going, and not really fun to read. It gets better after that, but I do feel a bit let down by the whole thing.

There’s a man and a woman, and they want to be together, because they think they’re so special and clever and different and better than everyone else because they don’t value society’s rules like everyone else. But they choose not to be together because it would upset society, and he marries someone else. Apparently Wharton was a bit of a rebel and she shunned society’s norms, too, but if she did it in the same way as these two did – just a lot of hand-holding and sighing behind closed doors, then she’s not my kind of rebel.

It’s a big shame that I didn’t really like any of the characters. I don’t much like the protagonist (it’s unusual for a woman to be writing from a man’s perspective). I feel sorry for his wife but I want to give her a good shake and tell her to stop being so wet. I quite like the “other woman” but she’s there in New York because she left a bad husband in Europe and sacrificed her reputation and upset society in doing so. Since she’s done that why doesn’t she get on with her life instead of mooning about over this other man who she can’t have because he’s married someone else?

I loved the descriptions of the buildings, furnishings and fashions, but here’s one of the few times when the film might be better than the book – a wardrobe expert can make all this stuff for me, in stead of my having to imagine it myself. In fact, Scorsese’s film did win an Oscar for costume design.

It’s a beautiful portrait of 1870s New York, and discusses all the social trends and norms of the day, which is fascinating and thought-provoking. Wharton wrote this in 1920 so she even puts in a few jokes about the incredibility of the telephone or the flying machine. I was amused to read of a stuffy old New York where they were apparently more conservative than Europe – how times have changed!

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