Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, October 15, 2010

"The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton


The Age of Innocence and I got off to a most inauspicious beginning. After several light and easy reads, I thought I was fully recovered from Anna Karenina and ready to tackle some more Real Literature (though I must admit I rejoiced when Wharton's book arrived and I saw it was not even 300 pages).

Well, I'll tell you, I have this odd disease that renders me incapable of leaving any part of a book unread, and my copy of this book has a 21-page introduction that is so very, very dull. I thought I would never get to the book itself.

At least the introduction was not completely horrible. I actually learned a few things from it. Without it I would never have known about Edith Wharton's involvement in the Great War, providing "help and support for civilians and soldiers alike," mainly in Paris. I likewise would have had no idea that the setting for The Age of Innocence (New York just after America's Civil War, though that conflict is never mentioned in the book that I recall) mirrored the era which Wharton lived through after World War I.

Once I got through the introduction, the story itself was like a breath of fresh air. I really enjoyed it. I'd never read anything by Edith Wharton before, but I found her writing very similar to that of Henry James, which I've always loved (well, except for The Ambassadors, although I can't remember why). Both writers deal with the Victorian era and delve into what lies beneath its superficial propriety.

I loved reading what might well be called the subtext of these characters' lives. One good example was an entire unspoken monologue from May Archer to her husband Newland. With a seemingly innocuous statement and a significant look, she conveyed a much deeper meaning which was grasped by Archer with perfect clarity. This tendency was recognized years later by their son Dallas, who said, "You never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath . . . I back your generation for knowing more about each other's private thoughts than we ever have time to find out about our own."

Several times the reader is privy to the thoughts that Archer might have spoken aloud had he not been such a product of his environment and its mores. I think my favorite was when May asked him to close the window so he didn't "catch his death," and he thinks, "But I've caught it already. I am dead--I've been dead for months and months." What was left unsaid spoke volumes. I wonder if May was as astute in deciphering Archer's thoughts as he was with hers? She certainly knew more than she ever let on.

The entire book was rife with Victorian repression, which particularly resonates with me as it reminds me of precisely what it was like growing up with parents like mine. (I'm not really kidding very much when I say that.) Almost every character is rigidly constrained by the approval of society, keeping up appearances even if it meant withering and dying inside. Right up until the very end! Which, interestingly enough, stirred in me such a strange sense of déjà vu. I know I haven't read the book before, but I'm almost certain that somewhere, somehow, I'd already read the last two or three pages.

We'll be discussing this book tonight at Book Club. Even more fun, I got a copy of the 1993 movie with Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer and Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen Olenska. I've never seen the movie before, but I could picture Olenska looking and acting just like Pfeiffer throughout the entire book. 

One final thought: I learned from this book that you should never slice cucumbers with a steel knife, but what I can't figure out is why. And, does this rule apply to stainless steel (which, in the form as we know it today, wasn't produced until the 20th century)?

13 comments:

Stephanie said...

It's been many years since I read this book, but I remember loving it. Edith Wharton writes wonderful novels, and I find it much more readable than Henry James. :-)

Lesa said...

I have to read introductions too-- even the boring ones. I did see the movie but don't remember much. Recently, I saw the 1949 movie The Heiress based on Henry James' novel Washington Square-- really good and I thought at the time I should read some James-- now I need to read some Wharton too. My TBR is starting to overwhelm me!!!

Jessica said...

I got totally put off this book by watching the film LOL Why did he not go up to her room?

I did enjoy Whartons writing in the other book I read of hers though. I though she was going to be really hard going to read but she really isn't.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I've read one Wharton book (The House of Mirth) and absolutely loved it! I can't wait to read more of her works -- I'm not sure about the steel and cucumbers part, but I wonder if there's some tangy taste from a steel knife that may be more noticeable when it's on a cucumber? Hmm!

Kathy said...

Stephanie--which other Wharton novels have you read? I plan to read Ethan Frome at some point, and I have a copy of Mme de Treymes that I still haven't read. But after this one, I am looking forward to both!

Lesa--I've really enjoyed reading Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady, and The Wings of the Dove by James. I guess I've seen movie adaptations of each, too! Wasn't aware of The Heiress, though. The one I've seen is the 1997 version with Jennifer Jason Leigh as Catherine Sloper.

Jess--I agree, Wharton was easier to read than I'd expected. Which book of hers did you read? Now, this may be more info than you really wanted, but the book does give a little more insight into the ending than the movie did. Archer was waiting for a sign--wanting her to come to the window--and when she didn't, he took that as his sign. He also said, "It's more real to me here than if I went up." He didn't want "that last shadow of reality to lose its edge." That probably won't convince you to read the book, and I have to say I did think the end was a little bit frustrating . . . but also poignant and bittersweet.

Natalie--I'm thinking I'll need to add House of Mirth to my list! And I wondered that about the steel knife--either it changed the flavor of the cucumbers, or maybe it discolored them?

Shelley (Book Clutter) said...

I love Edith Wharton and this book, but for some reason I couldn't make it more than ten minutes into the movie. It was quite different from what I pictured, I guess!

Becky (Page Turners) said...

I have this sittin gon my shelf and now I am keen to read it :-)

Kristi said...

I started to read this but I had to return it to the library and had only gotten to a few pages. I'm excited to finally get back to it. I read Ethan Frome this summer and really enjoyed it. It's super short. I was so nervous to read Edith Wharton, but her books are much easier to read than expected (besides the sad endings).

Kathy said...

Shelley--your comment on the movie made me think about when we watched it at book club last week--when the movie began, one of the members got kind of a skittish look on her face and asked, "Is this a play?" but she was much relieved to be reminded that the opening scene occurs at the opera. :)

Becky--I hope you enjoy it! I'll be looking forward to your review.

Kristi--I'm relieved to hear that Ethan Frome looks short! :) But, hmmm, I didn't realize that Wharton made a habit of sad endings . . .

LifetimeReader said...

I hated Ethan Frome so much when I was in high school (and too young to appreciate it) that I have not tried any other Wharton. I think the time has come....

And yes, stainless is fine on the cukes. My understanding is that when people used to say cucumbers, they often meant pickled cukes. They (like tomatoes) are highly reactive with certain metals. I don't think a fresh cucumber could do it, though. The reactions can discolor the food, affect the sharpenability of the knife, and sometimes impart an off or bitter taste as well.

Kathy said...

LTR--I visited your blog. Quite ambitious! I am looking forward to January! I think you will enjoy this book when you reach that point in your project.

Thanks for the cuke/pickle info! It's so strange how something that was once common knowledge can nearly disappear over the years.

LifetimeReader said...

Thanks! I'm looking forward to January as well, but right now I'm stuffing myself with more contemporary books.

I've been a little obsessed with your cuke question--and when there was a chat with food scientist Harold McGee on Twitter, I asked him (without explaining the whole set up). Here's his reply: http://twitter.com/#!/Harold_McGee/status/28792490219

Kathy said...

That's great! Kind of funny--I bet this is the one bit of The Age of Innocence that will always stick with me. :)