Nobody knew the hypocrises of "old New York" better than Edith Wharton, and nobody portrayed them as well. In "The Age of Innocence," Wharton took readers on a trip through the stuffy upper crust of 1870s New York, wrapped up in a hopeless love affair -- beautifully written, with a look at a society that frowned on anyone different.
Newland Archer, of a wealthy old New York family, has become engaged to pretty, naive May. But as he tries to get their wedding date moved up, he becomes acquainted with May's exotic cousin, Countess Olenska, who has returned home after dumping her cheating count husband. At first, the two are friends, but then they become something more.
After Newland marries May, the attraction to the mysterious Countess and her free, unconventional life becomes even stronger. He starts to rebel in little ways, but he's still mired in a 100% conventional marriage, job and life. Will he become an outcast and go away with the beautiful countess, or will he stick with May and a safe, dull life?
There's nothing too scandalous about "Age of Innocence" in a time when J.Lo acquires and discards boyfriends and husbands like old pantyhose. Probably it wasn't in the 1920s, when the book was first published. But this isn't a book to read if you appreciate sexiness and steam -- instead it's a social satire, a bittersweet romance, and a look at what happens when human beings lose all spontaneity and passion.
Wharton brings old New York to life in this book -- opulent, beautiful, cultured, yet empty and kind of boring. It is "where the real thing was never said or done or even thought," so tied up in tradition that nobody there really lives. And even though the unattainable countess is beautiful and sweet, it becomes obvious after awhile that Newland is actually in love with the idea of breaking out of his conventional life.
Wharton's writing is a bit like a giant rosebud -- it takes forever to fully open. So don't be discouraged by the endless conversations about flowers, ballrooms and gloves. Wharton put them in to illustrate her point about New York at that time, and all the stories about different families, scandals and customs are actually very important.
Newland seems like a rather boring person, since he only has brief bursts of individuality. But he gets more interesting when he struggles between his conscience and his longing for freedom. May is (suitably) pallid and a bit dull, while the Countess is alluringly mysterious and unconsciously rebellious. The fact that she doesn't TRY to rebel makes her far more interesting than Newland.
"Age of Innocence" considered a story about a man in love with an unattainable woman, but it's also about that man straining against a stagnant, hypocritical society. Rich, intriguing and beautifully written.