Edith Wharton – The Age of Innocence

Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Year: 1920

Even though it’s true that I haven’t published lots of reviews recently, it would be false to say that I’m not reading. However, most of the things I read are either course related or in Chinese, which means that I don’t think it’s interesting enough to write about twice. However, whenever I read novels in English, it feel that I want to review them here, so that’s what I’m going to do with Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.

In summary, the story of this book looks rather humdrum. It’s about a couple’s impending marriage and the upheaval that is wrought upon their relationship as a third player enters the scene, which is upper-class society in late nineteenth-century New York. The setting is important, because much of the drama and the interaction between characters are firmly anchored in that time, meaning that the book becomes a window through which the reader can perceive this age of innocence (the title is somewhat ironic, I should add). Wharton wrote the book well after that time had come to an end, but was herself raised in it, and it is very obvious she has first-hand insights into how life back then was.

I mostly like this book because of the carefully structured setting, the aptly portrayed characters and the connection between these parts. First and foremost, Wharton functions as a guide back to a time and a society which is long gone, and she does it in a way that makes sense, which is interesting most of the time and occasionally funny as well. Second, the characters themselves (the married engaged couple and the girls cousin) are all fairly complex and believable characters. Third, and perhaps most important, these characters are marvellously well connected to the story and the setting. They represent various aspects of society and they see in each others representatives of other aspects, sometimes wildly desirable ones, that make them come alive and fight for what the believe in. The social drama which follows never seizes to be interesting and entertaining.

However, there are some reasons that I would hesitate to recommend this book unconditionally. To start with, it takes some effort to immerse oneself in the setting of the book, which is sometimes depicted in fairly long passages with detailed descriptions of interior design, costume and food. These bits would be more interesting if I found the time period more attractive, but alas, I do not. However, spending the time and effort necessary to go a little bit deeper with this novel is rewarding and a something I would recommend. If you want the historical aspects of the story, I would suggest watching the film also titled The Age of Innocence by Martin Scorsese. It lacks the depth of the social drama, but it abundantly rich visually and works very well in combination with the novel. As a film adaptation, it’s eerily close to the original novel and made me like Scorsese even more than before.

So, by way of conclusion, I would like to say that Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence was a pleasant surprise. It was a bit heavy to read at times and with a little bit too much detail for a minimalist reader, but it was still rewarding in many ways. It’s perhaps not the kind of book you read in couple of hours just to relax, but if you’re serious about giving the book some time, I’m certain it will have something to give back.

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