Tuesday, October 23, 2012
The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)
Holy Mother of Pearl! Let me just say this was a really great book. And that's not just the Limoncello talking. Yes, I had a bottle in the freezer left over from when I visited Italy last year, and I polished it off tonight. I still can't figure out if I like the stuff...it has a nice flavor, but it's a bit too sweet for my tastes, I think. Edith Wharton, though, is none too sweet. I read "Ethan Frome" in high school and "The House of Mirth" in college and there was nothing at all sweet about those books. Man were they depressing...hellish glimpses of people coming to horrible ends after getting fucked over in relationships. So why would a guy like me, without a girlfriend at the moment, have the balls to read more Edith Wharton? Did I think it was going to motivate me to run out there and get hitched up? Nah, actually I had the book on my shelf, and it intrigued me, and even though it's not on the list for this blog I decided to take a break and read it. And wow, am I glad I did. This book maybe my new favorite of all the ones I've blogged about so far, right up there with "Silas Marner" and "Anna Karenina". It was entertaining, it was intellectually stimulating, and it made me weep. I mean seriously, this book hit me over the head with an emotional frying pan at the end and had me totally bawling, and that's not just the Limoncello talking. But then, we'd already established that last point.
"The Age of Innocence" takes place in Old New York. I'm guessing 1870s/1880s, when high society folks lead rather trivial lives of socializing according to very defined rules. Everyone knows what the rules are, but no one really talks about them. Spouses don't really communicate on a deep level. Everything is formal. Newland Archer is a rich young lawyer who grows up in this world and gets engaged to his sweetheart, May Welland. May is gorgeous, and Archer loves her. All seems good. Then May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, comes to town. Ellen grew up in New York, and was a childhood friend of Newland's, but she married a rich Polish count and moved to Europe. The Polish dude turned out to be a total asshole and cheated on her, so she ran off with his secretary, and then came back to the US. Everyone in New York high society is freaked out because she'd been living in Europe, and everyone knows those European people have mysterious ways that can't be trusted, plus why would any woman leave her husband? Her family, and Newland, work to get her integrated back into New York society but she's always regarded with suspicion. She's too free and unconventional, and everyone hates that. Except Newland. No, poor Newland suffers the fate of realizing how confining his pitiful life really is, and he totally falls for Ellen. Especially as he slowly finds out his wife doesn't have much of an interior life. He longs for more. He tells Ellen he loves her, but they both agree they shouldn't upset other people with such trivial feelings such as love, so Newland goes ahead with his engagement and he and May get married. Oh fuck, people, is it EVER a good idea to get married when you're in love with someone else? No, but Newland and Ellen were trapped by their society so they decided to try to ignore their feelings.
Newland and May are married and settle down to their life in New York. Memories of Ellen fade from Newland's mind until he runs into her again on a vacation out of town. Ellen promises not to go back to Europe while they're still in love, but once again she says they must not act upon their feelings. But after awhile, when Ellen moves back into New York City to take care of her grandmother who has had a stroke, she meets Newland again and they decide to consummate their affair. FINALLY!! But before that can happen Newland learns that Ellen is moving back to Europe, and May announces that they are to have a farewell dinner for her cousin in their house. Newland is freaked out by all this, and not at all happy, but what can he do? So they have this huge dinner party, and May makes him sit next to Ellen, and it's then he gets this totally paranoid feeling that everyone at the party thinks he and Ellen had an affair, and that this send-off is the best thing for him since it gets this adulterous bitch out of town so that Newland can focus on his wife who has always been true and faithful. Or is this really merely paranoia? After the guests leave, and Newland says goodbye to Ellen for what he presumes to be forever, May comes in to the study and tells him she's pregnant. She also says she told Ellen this a few days ago, right before Ellen suddenly decided to go to Europe. Ohh, snap! This woman, May, who Newland regarded as innocent and unobservant has apparently engineered the removal of Ellen from the scene.
Flash forward twenty years. Newland and May had several children. Newland's life with May was content, and his longings for Ellen slowly receded, and when May dies of pneumonia he is genuinely sad. He travels to Europe with his oldest son, who's grown up in a new generation where things aren't so stifling socially. These modern kids, they hang loose! In Paris his son suddenly says "Hey let's go visit our cousin Countess Olenska. You really loved her, didn't you Dad?" Newland's mind reels..."WTF did you just say, son?" His son tells him that his mother (May) said to him on her deathbed that their father would take care of him and his siblings, that he was a good man because he gave up what he wanted most so as to keep his marriage vows and stay with his family. This is where I started bawling. Newland had felt so alone in his suffering over Ellen. I know what unrequited love feels like and he suffered his over the course of years with a wife he didn't communicate with at a deep level. And yet, all long she knew how much he had loved Ellen, and she knew what a sacrifice it was for him to give her up. He hadn't been alone, but yet he never knew it. He had regarded his wife as someone who was oblivious to life and yet she was way more clued in than he ever imagined.
Anyway, his son drags him to see Countess Olenska. She's single and living in Paris. Newland reflects that he's only 57 years old, and that times have changed and no one would think twice if he took up with Ellen. They get to her apartment and Newland sends his son up, telling him he needs a moment. Newland sits on a bench, reflects that he prefers to remember the Countess as she was, that she was more real to him in his memories, and so he gets up and walks home without going up to see her. The End. Wow, not a sad end, but not a happy one either. Much like life sometimes.
I pondered the title "The Age of Innocence". Is Wharton referring to the days before World War I, when society had these rigid rules of conduct? Is she referring to youth...to the young Newland Archer who thought he could have it all, who didn't really know WTF he was doing emotionally? I don't know. After all, what do I know about literature, as I'm a biochemist tipsy on Limoncello? But I do know I loved this book. So sad, so wistful, and Wharton nails the psychology of her characters. If you're looking for a great book to read, try this one.