If you plan to read this book and you haven't seen the 1993 movie with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder--keep it that way! Admittedly a hard book to make into a movie, "Innocence" is best experienced with a mind unspoiled--or unsoiled--by images of a faulty adaptation.
Simply on the superficial level of comparing the way things were with the way they are "now" (the pre-WWI of the novel's end, as well as the 1920 of its publication) this book is amazing. Wharton is clearly having fun with her readers, reveling in the post-war freedom of sex, of social class, of old and new money, and of intellectual life, and contrasting it with the narrow, limited society of forty or fifty years previously. Native New Yorkers especially will be delighted with such descriptions as the dark, empty little dump that is the new Metropolitan Museum of Art and cackle over one elderly society matron who dares to build her mansion so far uptown as to border on "the Central Park."
Wharton develops her story with subtlety, giving us a picture of the world her protagonist, Newland Archer, inhabits as a stealthy introduction to his character and situation. Readers like me, who tend to need everthing spelled out, will want to read carefully, because halfway through what feels like setting the scene we, like Archer, wake up to find ourselves in over our heads. We see what a mess Archer has landed himself in, and how incapable he is of extricating himself.
Biographical criticism is out of fashion these days, as are certain elements of Wharton's style of writing. We're told by authorities like Stephen King and Elmore Leonard never to use adverbs and never to have characters "sigh" or "grumble" their dialogue but only to "say" it. (... he said.) Wharton breaks these rules often in "Innocence," which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Heh!
And so I looked her up in Wikipedia to see that she endured a sexless marriage for years, blaming her mother and that constricted world of her youth for her enforced "innocence," eventually finding the courage to get a divorce and enjoying one satisfying sexual and romantic relationship (with, BTW, a bisexual man).
In "The Age of Innocence," Wharton treats all her characters with fairness and even kindness. Archer's wife, May, whom he sees throughout the novel as unimaginative and conventional, is shown by the end to be wiser and more generous than he appreciates; Archer's own stultifying passivity is not entirely a character flaw, but is at least in part the inevitable result of growing up in this limited world. Archer is, in a certain way, condemned to his life by the fact that he is a decent, honorable man. He is capable of genuine love and wants something better than the routine "affairs" and empty marriages of his acquaintances.
The unromantic ending, which both shocked and pleased me, feels exactly right.