Robert's Reviews > The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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's review
Apr 13, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction
Read in May, 2008

The Age of Innocence was not on my reading list until Emily (my wife) recommended it after reading it for her book club. I didn't know what to expect and was a little apprehensive, but ended up really enjoying it.

Never have I read a book in which every word was relevant, forcing me into the habit of reading very carefully. I find most books lacking explanation in vital places and overflowing with unnecessary explanation in others. Edith Wharton's intelligent writing provided little fodder for either criticism. Her proverbial pottage was "just right."

I didn't expect to enjoy learning about late 19th century New York high society as much as I did. The characters were well rounded and I was able to identify remarkably well.

I can see why Emily's book club chose this novel. It provides lots of great open ended questions about society, relationships, and upbringing that are just as relevant today.

***Spoilers Follow***

I didn't expect The Age of Innocence to be so funny, as illustrated in this description of old Mrs. Manson Mingott: "The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon."

Another favorite quote is a good example of describing exactly what I've felt before: "He bent and laid his lips on her hands, which were cold and lifeless. She drew them away, and he turned to the door, found his coat and hat under the faint gaslight of the hall, and plunged out into the winter night bursting with the belated eloquence of the inarticulate.

Archer's entire life is defined by his society. His great struggle in life to break out of the mold. He starts to see outside his world, as at his wedding:

Archer wondered how many flaws Lefferts's keen eyes would discover in the ritual of his divinity; then he suddenly recalled that he too had once thought such questions important. The things that had filled his days seemed now like a nursery parody of life, or like the wrangles of medieval schoolmen over metaphysical terms that nobody had ever understood. A stormy discussion as the whether the wedding presents should be "shown" had darkened the last hours before the wedding; and it seemed inconceivable to Archer that grown-up people should work themselves into a state of agitation over such trifles, and that the matter should have been decided (in the negative) by Mrs. Welland's saying with indignant tears: "I should as soon turn the reporters loose in my house." Yet there was a time when Archer had had definite and rather aggressive opinions on all such problems, and when everything concerning the manners and customs of his little tribe had seemed to him fraught with worldwide significance. "And all the while, I suppose," he thought, "real people were living somewhere, and real things happening to them..."

But he can't, and never does, break free. This is the reason he can't go up and see Ellen at the end of the book.

I wish Archer had caught on that Ellen wanted to get a divorce so she would have the freedom "But my freedom-is that nothing?" to possibly marry him. That may have given him the motivation to break out of society, call of the engagement, and marry Ellen. That's the only tragedy I see.

He didn't do that. And when he married May, he should have committed himself to her and not given his heart to Ellen. "he built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings." This is the essence of his infidelity.

Vocabulary words:
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message 2: by Vanessa (last edited May 04, 2008 08:36PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Vanessa I like how detailed and analytical your reviews are. I enjoy reading them.

My book club read this book as well, and the "open-ended questions" you refer to prompted a lot of discussion. Definitely a "good read."

message 1: by LaMissile (new)

LaMissile "...bursting with the belated eloquence of the inarticulate."

I read that line a hundred times, it was so brilliant. I know exactly what you(and Archer) mean. I'm glad someone else was as preoccupied with it as I was.

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