I read the first 20 pages of this novel, put it in my jacket pocket, and didn't think about it for a long time. It was Yet Another Novel About Turn Of The Century Rich-People Society. Feh. I've read many since my top 100 journey began.
I thought about how there are people who claim to despise a particular celebrity, like Paris Hilton. And they will have seen every movie or television show she's been in, in order to mock her. And they will have read every newspaper article, and bookmarked every website, and know who she's dating, who she's dated, since she was thirteen years old. And you start to get the feeling that their obsession is making their claims of "I think its stupid that people care so much about her" a little ... ironic.
Every Novel About Turn Of The Century Rich-People Society has this attitude of "Oh, we poor authors are so superior to these shallow people, these poor shallow people who aren't really happy - " and you look at all the novels in toto and start to think that maybe the authors are protesting a bit too much. I'll come out and admit it - I would LOVE being a rich society person. Yes, I wouldn't last, because I would violate taboos and all, but I certainly would enjoy it while it lasted.
So, as I said, I put this in my pocket and didn't feel like taking it out. And when I did, I had to start over because it is one of those novels that in the first five pages throws names at you and family names like the Benson-Hedges and the Tuxedo-Chumleys and all that, and so I reread the first few pages slowly, to try to get some of it to stick in my coconut. And then... and then... I got wrapped up in it.
The plot isn't anything special. Newland Archer is a rich New York society guy who is a pig like all the others. He has a dilettante's interest in Art and Literature, unlike his contemporaries, so he feels a bit above them. And he is going to marry May, who is the Perfect Woman for him. But then he meets her cousin Ellen, who is from Europe, and is an out-caste because not only is she from Europe, but she has left her Husband! (He beat the hell out of her) And seeing his world through her iconoclastic eyes, he changes, and suddenly his perfect fiancee and perfect life seem false to him. Ellen has changed him in a very short time. Now what the hell is he supposed to do?
But here is what makes this book special - the writing. Edith Wharton is able to make me actually care about Newland, Ellen, May, and the supporting characters. She is able to build suspense out of a look - out of an offhand comment. What is Newland going to do? What does May suspect? Or not? We are in a world where nobody talks about anything directly, for fear of making a scene, and so it is all about what you think she is thinking you are thinking, and what did she really mean when she said, "would you like some more lemonade?" Except when Ellen and Newland talk - they talk honestly. But they don't talk often.
Wharton's pacing is just amazing. There are probably fewer than five main Surprising Events in the novel - and each one comes out of the blue, but never contrived. You just get sucked into the world and the writing and the plot, and it becomes less of another novel about Rich Society People and more of a novel about Newland, Ellen and May. Unlike Point Counter Point which hates its characters, The Age of Innocence genuinely seems to like them, even though it thinks that their lifestyle leaves a lot to be desired.
Newland can be a cad, but he never crosses the line into being Evil. Ellen can be willfully naive, but never crosses the line into being stupid. And May - one of the central mysteries of the novel is, in my opinion, what exactly is going on behind those innocent blue eyes?
I was going to give this book a rating of , because I really liked it... until the last chapter. Blew me away. I don't want to give anything away by telling you what my emotion was at the end, but I will tell you it was strong enough to make me think, "I've just read one of the greatest novels of all time."
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