By: Edith Wharton
Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.”
This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.
Completion: Somehow I managed to finish this novel, but boy does it drag like no other. There is just something about plots involving rich characters that makes the excitement and pacing go out the window.
Writing/Style: The novel reads like an old woman telling a story, unable to feel the pulse for the interesting details and events. Line by line the writing isn’t bad, but when you look at the overall picture, the story drowns in unnecessary details and everything is included in the same drab fashion. If the writing had been trimmed down, it would have solved a lot of the pacing issues and perhaps the writing would not have been as grating as it was.
Characters: I found it so hard to relate and sympathize with Archer, the main character, and his rich, white non-problem problems. Half the time Archer’s character isn’t even believable. He oscillates back and forth from being critical of the flaws of his society to mindlessly taking them in stride. While I know this is possible for people to do in real life, it appeared that his opinions and attitude changed without any progression in his character and instead for the convenience of the author. This and his insistent thoughts about Olenska just made him a nauseating character.
Plot/Pacing: The leisurely pacing burdens the plot. While it is perhaps realistic for Archer and Olenska to be separated by society and travel, it was not written in a way that compounded my interest and tension but instead diluted it. Scenes of conflict and tension were isolated in bubbles littered sparingly throughout the story. Like air out of a balloon, the more time they spent apart the less I cared.
However, without giving anything away, I found the ending quite surprising which I do give Wharton credit for. I marinated over the ending for days, and I’m still not quite sure what I make of it. As much as I enjoyed the ending for not going where I thought it was, I’m still not quite sure if it made up for the slog it took to get there. I spent a long time wondering if this story would have been better suited as a short story, and I think in a lot of ways it would have been. A lot of what bothered me in this novel became more prominent due to its length.
World-building/Atmosphere: While the meandering plot dilutes the tension, it certainly adds to the world-building. By the end of this, I felt I very much understood how people of high class society looked, felt, and spent their time during this period.
Sub-genres (Romance, Humor, Mystery, etc.): If there was humor, it went over my head. There’s not much in the way of mystery except to find out what happens to these characters. Sadly, I did not believe in the romance one smidgen. Archer and Olenska have no chemistry, and, despite the pacing of the overall plot feeling slow, their romance feels oddly accelerated beyond the point of believability. They have quite a few scenes together, but those scenes never add up to love to me.
FINAL VERDICT: For the casual reader, I would give this a pass. It is too much of a struggle to get through for such little reward. For those who appreciate Wharton’s writing, I believe you will be satisfied with this story, and the ending will probably resonate deeper with you than it did for me. As for me, it looks like I am not much of Wharton fan and will gladly be leaving this book behind me.