Friday, March 25, 2016

Book Review- The Age of Innocence

The Age of InnocenceFor the Shelf Love challenge, Mount TBR challenge, the 12 Month Classics Challenge, Back to the Classics challenge, Full House reading challenge and the Classics Club I read Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence.
Synopsis from Goodreads: Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.”This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.
This was quite a book. I knew going into it that it was going to be give me lots of food for thought so I took the time to slow down while reading it, which is a struggle for me. It was worth it though. But even with slowing down I still feel like I can't quite put into words how I felt about it. There was a lot I loved about this book but I'm not sure I love the conclusion it draws. As the synopsis indicates it is a story about naivety, the dread of scandal, convention, tradition and HYPOCRISY. It was horribly aggravating sometimes how snooty (I'm not sure what other word I could use) the people are in this story. They never give Countess Olenska a chance. As Newland thinks once, they were setting her up to be the mistress of Beaufort (a married man notorious for having mistresses) by looking down on her for getting a divorce. Which by the way, I am against divorce for any reason basically except infidelity and her husband's infidelity is exactly why she wanted the divorce so I think she should have gone through with it. The countess is unconventional, which is what draws Newland to her. Intellectually they are equals.
Mae Welland, the woman Newland marries is a cookie cutter woman not really trained to have her own thoughts. A blank page. Conventional. Boring! Newland had longed as a bachelor to have a different marriage than those around him but in the end that is what he is stuck with.
So in my opinion here's what should have happened. He should have broken his engagement off with Mae and Countess Olenska should have gotten her divorce and Newland and Countless Olenska could have married. That's not what happened and because of that Newland and the Countess end up having an emotional affair before Mae slyly and oh so innocently contrives their separation by telling the Countess that's she pregnant (before she knows she actually is). Then, to prevent Newland from going after her like he planned to she told him she was pregnant (when she was actually sure of it).  The thing is, after Newland made the decision to go ahead and marry Mae that should have been the end of him and the Countess. They made themselves miserable and in my opinion it was kind of their own fault. I think the concluding decision is really made when Newland decides to marry Mae instead of the Countess though I think others might disagree and say it's when Newland decided not to pursue the Countess to Europe. He chose rightly though. I think maybe you're supposed to think he should have gone anyways and fulfilled their love for each other but that wasn't the right decision! He was a married man. He made that decision and he has no right to be changing it now. Newland was the better man for making that decision too. It also effectively ended up breaking him and the Countess entirely off... which was Mae's plan. In the end, Newland still had a decent life and as it says in the book, he truly mourned his wife's death. He loved his children and enjoyed being with them. In the end, while we pity Newland I think we can also be happy for him. One wonder a little though how Countess Olenska's story concluded.
So I know that was a horribly disjointed review but it's the best I could come up with. I doubt I could ever put into words how I feel about this book. I liked it though. I did watch the 1993 film version with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder after reading the book and I'll be reviewing it soon enough. Short review for it though is that I thought it was a good adaptation.
This book was quite thought provoking and very interesting and I did enjoy it. The themes it explored were fascinating. Read or not? Read!
P.S. Thank you Olivia for recommending this one to me!

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  1. I've been meaning to read this one. I just haven't gotten around to it yet.

  2. Ahhh!! I got so excited when I saw your review on my dashboard :)

    Sounds like we had just about the same reaction/feelings about this book, which makes me super happy! I KNOW. Why did Newland not break off his engagement, why did Ellen not go through with her divorce? I mean, I know WHY they didn't do those things, technically, but morally I still think it would have been the better thing to do. Of course, I like how Ellen points out that Newland rather made a mess of things when he urged her to give up her divorce in this part:

    "You, you, you!" she cried, her lip trembling like a child's on the verge of tears. "Isn't it you who made me give up divorcing--give it up because you showed me how selfish and wicked it was, how one must sacrifice one's self to preserve the dignity of marriage…and to spare one's family the publicity, the scandal? And because my family was going to be your family--for May's sake and for yours--I did what you told me, what you proved to me that I ought to do. Ah," she broke out with a sudden laugh, "I've made no secret of having done it for you!"

    Obviously, like we both mentioned in our reviews, marriage is sacred and should never be dissolved unless under certain circumstances. So while I don't agree with some of the assumptions/conclusions the characters drew, I do appreciate how unexpectedly things turned out, and how it wasn't just a rant against society's conventions.

    Ooh, please do review the movie! I was wondering about it.

    You're so welcome! I'm thrilled you liked it :) I went through my copy a second time and annotated it, and I think I'm going to reread it again soon. It's become a new favorite; it's just so thought-provoking.

    Oh, and before I go, I wanted to share one of my favorite quotes (I have many, haha). "But you knew; you understood; you had felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands--and yet you hated the things it asks of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I'd never known before--and it's better than anything I've known." I JUST.

    Wonderful review!!!

    1. Thanks for commenting Olivia!
      I was also surprised how it ended but I liked it. The writing is beautiful in this book and I am sure someday I'm going to go back and re-read this book and ponder upon it once more. :)

  3. Great review, Lois, not disjointed at all! The Age of Innocence left me with a lot of thoughts as well about convention, what you have to do/what you want to do, etc. I felt bad for everyone but as you mentioned it really did come down to their decisions: Newland chose Mae, it should've been the end of it there. Mae surprised me at the end, doing what she did to keep Newland and the Countess apart permanently.


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