S.'s Reviews > The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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May 30, 2011

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bookshelves: women-writers, read-in-2011, 1001-list
Read from May 19 to 28, 2011

Once again an underwhelming Pulitzer Prize winner. I would have given up but "The Age of Innocence" is one of my father’s favorites, so I stuck it out, hoping for an ironic twist or natural catastrophe or messy and embarrassing suicide.

Lacking intellectual pursuits, weird sexual inclinations and/or worthy and urgent causes, the idle rich are a dull lot, and the calamity of this book is that to the last page Newland Archer’s life goes on as tediously as ever.

About 30 pages in I wondered if the book would be concerned solely with the characters’ taste in clothes, their decorating preferences and whether or not their chefs were any good. There was a bright spot about 3/4s through were Newland realizes he wishes his boring wife May were dead, and I was like, yeaaahh, kill her! That would have livened things up, but alas, murder is just not done.

So what did I learn from this book? I learned that in the late 1800s rich white people were like walking light bulbs. They did a lot of coloring, using the rush and ebb of blood to make their faces and necks light up to convey their feelings, or to go ashen to express discouragement, disappointment or calm. Barely a page goes by without someone’s face flushing, or going pale, or clouding over, or reddening fit to burst! This is obviously the way polite society used to express their emotions.

The height of this circulatory phenomenon is the exchage between Newland and M. Rivière, the secretary/messenger. It’s practically acrobatic. First, Newland’s words “sent the blood rushing to his temples as if he had been caught by a bent-back branch in a thicket.” Then “he saw his blush more darkly reflected in M. Rivière’s sallow countenance.” At the same time, “M. Rivière paled to his normal hue: paler than that his complexion could hardly turn.” Then “Archer, reddening slightly, dropped to his chair,” and also “M. Rivière reddened, but his eyes did not falter,” just before “the young man’s color again rose.”

Of course these corporeal flashes and chills parallel similar imagery of embers and fireplaces, the sun and the weather, kindled hope and hope extinguished. Still, I did feel at times it was bit overdone. If I were thorough, this list would be 6x longer, but here are some other instances:

Archer looked at her glowingly p. 21
Miss Archer blushed and tried to look audacious. P. 33.
The young man reddened. p.34
Newland reddened p. 35.
Newland Archer reddened and laughed. P. 53
She glowed with sympathy … a dusky blush rose to her cheek. p. 54.
He colored a little p. 62.
The light touched the russet rings of the dark hair … and made her pale face paler. p. 63.
The Duke beamed on the group … Madame Olenska’s face grew brilliant with pleasure. p. 65.
Her face lit up. p. 68.
Janey paled and her eyes began to project. p. 71
Archer felt the blood in his temples. p. 77
Her face looked pale and extinguished, as if dimmed by the rich red of her dress p. 90
The blood rushed to his forehead. p. 94
To his surprise her color rose, reluctantly and duskily. p. 98
Her face clouded over (…) the blood rose to his temples. p. 110
… he felt the color rise to his cheek. p. 121
She flushed with joy and lifted her face. p. 126.
Archer burst into a laugh, and May echoed it, crimson to the eyes. p. 177
A sudden blush rose to young Mrs. Archer’s face (…) p. 215
“Augusta,” he said, turning pale and putting down his fork (…) p. 232
It was Mrs. Welland’s turn to grow pale (…) p. 233
Mr. Welland’s brow remained clouded (…) p. 233
.. with an insistence so unlike her he felt the blood rising to his face … p. 234
… and her face, in contrast, was wan and almost faded. p. 243
She merely looked paler, with darker shadows in the folds and recesses of her obesity. p. 248
The young man heard her with veins aglow. p. 249

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Reading Progress

05/19/2011 page 12
4.0% "at the opera..."
05/20/2011 page 25
8.0% "If this is going to be all about what people are wearing and how they decorate their houses, I am going to give up...."
05/28/2011 page 214
70.0% "not enjoying, just trying to finish" 4 comments
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Tom (new)

Tom Stick with it, S! I agree at first it seems quite tepid, even dull, especially compared with House of Mirth, but after successive readings and teaching it a couple of times, I think its superior to HoM (and more readable than H. James, whom EW admired)and quietly devastating in its portrayal of illusion of noncoformist desires.


message 2: by S. (new) - rated it 3 stars

S. I did think of Henry James as I began, whom I'm also not terribly fond of. My father loves him. But I will try to wade in further before deciding. Thanks.


Maia great review--totally agree with you. i've had the same exact feeling every time i've read it!


message 4: by S. (new) - rated it 3 stars

S. I think the whole face coloring thing was interesting, but not enough reason to read it again.


message 5: by Tichaona (new)

Tichaona Chinyelu "darker shadows in the folds and recesses of her obesity" is a great line but this review had me laughing...then cackling at the list. won't be reading this one!


Ruth This is not my favorite Wharton, but I still liked it a lot. Nobody could slip in the knife with such ladylike elegance.


message 7: by Chris (new)

Chris I'm fairly certain snickering doesn't redden one's face, but if it does, my countenance is worthy of some Whartonesque frillery right now.


message 8: by Antonia (new)

Antonia I'm betting the review is better than the book. I just read it aloud (the review) to my husband. We're greatly amused.


message 9: by S. (new) - rated it 3 stars

S. I think I may have missed some of the humor. Maybe I should do the audio book? On second thought, isn't my to-read list about 300 miles long?


message 10: by Ken (new)

Ken Yes. Consider yourself Whartoned and move on with your reading life....


message 11: by Antonia (new)

Antonia I meant that your review is humorous. Esp. the list. As for the book, I'm sure I can live without reading it.


message 12: by S. (new) - rated it 3 stars

S. Hi Toni,
I got you, but I do think the book might be funnier than I appreciated. It happened to me when I listened to "Pride and Prejudice" - suddenly it was very very funny. But still, not going there, I think.


message 13: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Very cool review.


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