Edith Wharton had an impeccable ability to make upper society look as ridiculous as it really is. This time she takes on upper New York society in the 1870s.
The double standard shown in this book between men and women is just asinine. Countess Olenska is shown as unfortunate because she left her cruel husband. Because of his follies, she is punished for leaving him.
The Age of Innocence shows the ridiculous standards of old New York. You couldn't even sneeze in public without someone knowing and gossiping how unsanitary you are. This is just an example, not used in the book. Bottom line, you could not do anything without being exposed to the horrible monster called gossip. The people who you regularly converse with (your friends, I guess, although I wouldn't call them that) one week could shun you the next.
People's lives were structured by these standards. A man and woman who could have such happiness together could not otherwise be together because of something in one of their pasts. Newland Archer married May because it's what society basically wanted. It was a safe marriage, free from scandal.
Wharton is the queen of satire, in my opinion. She was also an author not big on the happy ending. So far, this is my favorite of her work.