Friday, April 17, 2015

Book Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Published: 1920 by D. Appleton & Company
(Amazon / Goodreads)

Synopsis: 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

I try to read a classic a month, there are just so many that I hadn't read. The Age of Innocence has been on my list for quite awhile. It's a classic that seems like one I would really enjoy. I was not disappointed in the history, the characters, and Edith Whatron's writing.

What was so interesting for me about this book is the historical context. It was written in the 1920's but it takes place in the 1870's (which is why I am reading it as part of my historical fiction month) so it can't be viewed entirely through either construct. Interestingly they are not very different periods in American history. The 1920's was a period of change and modernization. Frivolity and excess was celebrated and there was this general idea of people doing as they pleased (think The Great Gatsby). Where in the 1870's it was about excess and showing off but that was because it was what society deemed, it was all about convention and expectation. So Edith Wharton is writing through this lens as much as one fixed on the 1920's. And that to me is what made the book so interesting. The two ideas are at such odds throughout the novel. And it's a social commentary about not only the fact that you shouldn't look to society to dictate your actions but you also should do whatever you want because there will be consequences. The historical context made for some really interesting themes in The Age of Innocence.

And that idea of what society wants being at odds with what you want was embodied in the characters. First I want to say that I found it so interesting here that the book had a male protagonist. There sort of novels, especially classics, that focus on romance and modernizing despite societies conventions tend to focus on women whose role in society was at the heart of the change. But here we have Newland Archer as our protagonist. He's in a bit of a love triangle with his fiance, the demure society darling May Welland, and her cousin the modern and reckless Countess Olenska. All the characters were complex and interesting, I particularly enjoyed their development throughout the book. But I think what I really liked was the dynamic between them. Both romantic and non.-romantic. I love a good tortured romance in my classics and here we have a great one. Like most people I tend to get very tired of love triangles but here it really did work. It fit the characters, it fit the themes of the book, and it added drama instead of taking away from the plot.

In fact the plot really centered around the romance and that was perfectly fine with me. I really enjoyed seeing these characters interact.  There was this realistic subtle to them. They talked and they gossiped. They were on their best behavior because that's what society expected of them but in private they were who they wanted to be. They were constantly changing and evolving just as society was modernizing around them. It was almost a coming-of-age story with the character development. Edith Wharton wrote a beautiful character-driven novel about the entangled loves of the elites during the Gilded Age.

And what made the book so engaging was the writing. I tend to have this tortured relationship with a lot of classics because they are good but they're long with moments that just seem wordy and not very important to the general plot. And yes, it does have it's moments, but modern classics like this really improve on that a lot. We are still able to be immersed in the world but it's not all about explaining the setting. Edith Wharton makes New York in the 1890's come alive with the glamour and the parties but be don't get bogged down in the details. Her writing is lyrical and deep while still being readable. It's no wonder The Age of Innocence is a Pulitzer Winner. It's just an all-around well-written novel.

I give The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton a 9 out of 10

Buy/Borrow/Bypass: Buy/Borrow A definite read for fans of romantic classics in the the vein of Jane Austen but especially for fans of the Bronte sisters. I loved the characters and the historical context. If you are a fan of books set during this period like I am then check this book out.

Have you read The Age of Innocence? What did you think? Leave me a comment with your thoughts.


  1. I keep telling myself to read more classics, and this one sounds like a good one to kick off with. Great review!

    1. I really enjoyed it. It's nor very long so it would be a pretty good classic to start with. I can also give you some more recomendations if you want, just let me know.