Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (3.5/5)

First published: 1920
Page count: 368

The back says: The return of the beautiful Countess Olenska into the rigidly conventional society of New York sends reverberations throughout the upper reaches of society. Newland Archer, an eligible young man of the establishment is about to announce his engagement to May Welland, a pretty ingenue, when May's cousin, Countess Olenska, is introduced into their circle. The Countess brings with her an aura of European sophistication and a hint of scandal, having left her husband and claimed her independence. Her sorrowful eyes, her tragic worldliness and her air of unapproachability attract the sensitive Newland and, almost against their will, a passionate bond develops between them. But Archer's life has no place for passion and, with society on the side of May and all she stands for, he finds himself drawn into a bitter conflict between love and duty.
I say: As often happens with the classics, I didn’t read the synopsis and therefore had no idea what it was about when I started reading. The main reason I do this is because I have vowed to finish the list and some of the novels on there are about things that interest me very little – if at all.

And this was such a novel.
Without knowing beforehand that Newland was destined to fall in love with Countess Olenska, everything in their first encounter pointed towards it. Their “affair” was extremely boring and it made me intensely dislike Newland, who two second ago was all about duty and honour and now ready to throw that to the wolves. His self-importance and stupidity were at times baffling; it felt like such a cliché that a man who had been raised in high society (even though he had his doubts about it) suddenly was prepared to abandon his fiancée – and later wife – for a woman he had fallen passionately in love with.

Yes, it probably happens every day, but it was not convincing.
However, Newland did redeem himself in my eyes at the very end of the novel – which was the second best part of it; the best part being when May made him realise that she wasn’t as naïve as he had thought. There was a quiet strength and determination in her that I admired throughout (even though I’d never put up with what she did – but what choice did she have?), but when she revealed her little scheme towards the end I was in surprise awe of her.

New York high society is the setting; and even though I have little interest in it, Wharton’s prose made it bearable. It took me a while to figure out how the families were connected to each other and why they were so invested in each other’s business, but I found much of it to be inane and insipid.
So a 3.5/5 is the best I can give, and the extra 0.5 is because of May and the ending.

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