52 Books by 52 Women: The Age of Innocence

Well, this week I finished the first book in my year-long 52 Books by 52 Women challenge (not calendar year, or else I’d have a lot of catching up to do). I saw Martin Scorsese’s movie of The Age of Innocence when it came out way back in 1993, and I thought, “Man, that was not a good movie, but I get the impression that I’d really like the book.” It only took me 21 years to get around to reading it, but guess what? I did really like the book.

Not actually the edition I read, but it scarcely matters.

Not actually the edition I read, but it scarcely matters.

I’ve never read Edith Wharton before, appropriately enough because that’s what this project’s all about—reading female authors whose work I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. I had no idea when I chose The Age of Innocence more or less at random as the first of these 52 books that this 1920 novel made Wharton the first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for the novel (a category later expanded to cover fiction in general). Not too shabby! The Pulitzer was established in 1917, so it’s not like this was a centuries-old injustice or anything. Wharton was only the third recipient of the prize in general.

It’s a biting portrayal of fashionable New York society circa 1870, and it took me a little while to get into it because it opens with a flurry of who’s saying what about whom, and it was hard for me at first to keep track of who’s an unquestionable authority of sartorial propriety and who’s simply a gossip, or why I should care about all these snooty rich fucks. But it quickly sucked me in with its story of a native daughter of that social scene who’s returned from many years in Europe and is scandalizing New York by daring to show her face in public now that she’s permanently separated from her husband. The scandal of it! Sure, he was the one at fault, but the least she could do would be hide her face away forever, no matter how delightful she may be.

But it’s not really this woman’s story. The Countess Ellen Olenska only appears occasionally in the novel. It’s really about Newland Archer, a young man who is at first thoroughly invested in all the proprieties of fashionable society but soon grows frustrated with its hypocrisy and superficiality while trying to help Ellen navigate it. At first he does this simply because he’s engaged to her cousin and wants to help the family avoid any unpleasantness, but he gradually falls in love with her—which of course is completely unacceptable for all concerned because he’s engaged to her cousin.

Newland is frustrating as a point-of-view character because he’s often a jerk, lashing out with hurtful passive-aggression at any perceived slight. And you don’t exactly root for him and Ellen to just get together already, because he’s in too deep in his engagement and in fact wants to hurry it along to escape his other inappropriate attraction. It’s hard to believe that this other thing is the one true love that was meant to be when neither of the people involved wants it to happen, tempted and unhappy as they may be. At the same time, though, Newland’s is the perfect perspective to tell the story, because he knows the way things are and the way things are supposed to be backward and forward, and is only just now seeing (with an outsider’s perspective glimpsed through Ellen’s eyes) how terribly trivial it all is.

And as for the central love story, well, all I can say is that at the very end I was nearly moved to tears. I can’t say exactly why, not because I don’t understand why but because it really takes the entirely of the book to set it up properly. Let’s just say that it demonstrates that life is what you make of it, and what you choose not to make of it—well, that’s part of the life you make, too.

Next up, I dip my toe into the oeuvre of Octavia E. Butler with Kindred. More on that next week, once I’ve finished it.

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