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)?