Set in the early 1900′s in New York, The Age of Innocence is a story about love, betrayal, etiquette and social norms. Newland Archer is the typical upperclass New Yorker, set to wed May Wellend. When May’s cousin Madame Ellen Olenska comes to the New York seeking refuge from her husband in France, Newland’s views of his ideal world begin to tear as he discovers a new way of living and thinking through Ellen.
Edith Wharton’s classic is much like Pride and Prejudice; filled with social commentary and distaste for elitist norms and customs. It did, however, lack the wit and humor that made Pride and Prejudice a fun read. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy Age of Innocence, particularly towards the end. The first half was very dry and very, very little happened. Most of the first half was laying the foundation for the future relationship between Newland and Ellen. I did enjoy Wharton’s descriptions of New York during that era, and the personalities she crafted that embodied certain archetypes of the time.
May Wellend represents naive innocence (not seeing any reason or cause to change), Newland represents trapped innocence (wanting to change, but unable to), Ellen lacks all innoncence as she represents change.
The book is also ripe with Wharton’s frustrations with American customs in regards to traditions, appearance and social class. Although Wharton herself comes from upper class of New York, I think this gives her an insider’s perspective of the lifestyle that she mocks in this story.
The girls in my bookclub were very unsatisfied with the final ending between Newland and Ellen Olenska, but I liked it. I have a bias towards the not-so-happy endings. They seem more realistic to me. I did think that the ending was incredibly rushed through, when compared to the rest of the book. So much happened in the last 20 pages, and it took the first 140 to lay all the groundwork.
I do want to read more of Wharton, I love learning about the elite New York aristrocrasies that reigned over classic New York. I think this book would be a logical step up from fans of Anna Godberson’s The Luxe series, although Age of Innocence lacks the intense drama and raw passion that carries The Luxe series. Age of Innocence is a more quiet, subtle and accurate portrayal of this era.