Friday, October 18, 2013

The Age of Innocence and a Perfect Day


Sometimes a reading experience can be just as memorable as the book itself. Last month I had the pleasure of reading The Age of Innocence with Audrey, another long-time Edith Wharton fan. It was a reread for her, but somehow I never got around to reading the book many refer to as Wharton's masterpiece.

Goodreads sums it up nicely in just one sentence:
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.”

The main character, Newland Archer, is caught between desire and duty. Archer is engaged to May Welland, a quintessential product of the society in which she has been raised, but he begins to develop feelings for May's free-spirited cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has recently returned to New York to escape an unhappy marriage.

Wharton's style is immediately recognizable and the story drew me in right away, but her portrayal of 'society' also fascinated me. Societal constraints appeared suffocating, arbitrary, and at times laughable. For example, it was considered vulgar to appear in the latest fashion. New dresses were ordered from Paris only to hang in closets for two years. After that amount of time had lapsed, they were deemed appropriate.

I don't want to say anything more about the plot, but the last chapter just bowled me over. Can there be a better ending in all of literature? Set 26 years later, it transformed a really good novel into a great one. The Custom of the Country  has long been my favorite Wharton novel but, after reading that last chapter,  The Age of Innocence  moved into my top slot. However, I still think Undine Spragg is Wharton's most memorable character.

The Age of Innocence  was a read/listen combination for me. Although a beautiful hardcover has been on my shelf for years, I downloaded a free kindle edition and a 99 cent audible special narrated by Laural Merlington (who captured the tone of the novel perfectly). Whispersync is so convenient!

My rating:



The only thing better than a shared read with a blogging friend is to meet in person and talk about it. If that meeting happens to take place at the author's home, then all the better. Audrey and I had the opportunity to meet a couple of Sundays ago at The Mount, Wharton's home in Lenox, MA.

We had lunch on the terrace and talked about The Age of Innocence, books, blogging, life, baking, and much more. After lunch we toured the house, gardens, and, of course, the gift shop.

Audrey and JoAnn at The Mount

Although it was a grey, drizzly, frizzy-hair kind of day, it didn't dampen our enjoyment in the least. We're already talking about planning another bookish activity, possibly next spring or summer. In the meantime, I need to read that biography by Hermione Lee I bought five years ago on my last visit to The Mount.


24 comments:

  1. I think after reading this wonderful post of yours, that I have to get to The Mount as I've never been and I might soon be re-reading The Age of Innocence, it's such a wonderful book and it's been too long since I read anything by Edith Wharton.
    I'm glad you and Audrey had such a wonderful day....I love how you combined your chat about the book with your visit to The Mount, just brilliant!

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    1. Amy - The Mount is just spectacular...beautiful even on dark, drizzly day. I highly recommend reading (or rereading) one of her books before a visit!

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  2. WOW!! How fantastic that you were able to meet at The Mount! I'm so jealous (in a good way).

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    1. Beth F - It was definitely a fall highlight!

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  3. What a special place to meet a blogging friend, sounds perfect. I've never read this novel I must confess.

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    1. Lindsay - It's obvious Edith didn't think much of New York society... must be why she fled to Europe for the rest of her life. I was so happy to meet Audrey. I've been reading her blog for years!

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  4. It has been so long since I read this I think I need to go back and reread it. When we were at The Mount several years ago is was about to be foreclosed on. Looks like they managed to keep it open to the public.

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    1. Thomas - The last time I visited (5 yrs ago?) renovations were underway, but they were desperately trying to raise funds and avoid foreclosure. It must have been successful, since the rest of the upstairs was finished. I was surprised at the number of visitors on such a dreary day.

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  5. JoAnn,
    What a special post!! I enjoyed it immensely. The thought of you and a fellow blogger meeting at The Mount was wonderful--especially of the two of you together there. I visited The Mount when I was in my early thirties, but I wasn't a Wharton fan at that time. I read Age of Innocence in the 1990s, when I was a little bit older, but before the movie came out, and all in all, I thought the movie people didn't mess it up too badly. I loved the set design and costuming! Fascinating! So glad you enjoyed it!
    Judith

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    1. Judith - It was such a wonderful day! I'm starting to think about a larger group of bloggers reading a different Wharton novel next year (possibly The House of Mirth since it was actually written there) and doing it all again.

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    2. That sounds like so much fun! I've never read The House of Mirth but have always wanted to. I'd be very interested. Would you do a meet-up there again? I know you live a distance. I'd love to go again.
      Judith

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    3. Judith - It took me about 3 hours to get there, so doable for a day trip. We'll see how things stand next summer. I'd love to do another read-along/meet-up at The Mount.

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  6. What a wonderful thing to share with a bookish friend. :)

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    1. Carrie - It was a perfect day despite the weather!

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  7. I loved The Age of Innocence too, you are right about that last chapter (other people haven't liked it) but I thought it brought a real wow to the conclusion of a wonderful novel.

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    1. Heavenali - The last chapter truly made the novel for me. Hard to believe others haven't cared for it...

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  8. Such fun! I just abandoned Customs of the Country - just not a good book for what was going on in my life at the time. Undine was just too horrible for one thing and though I doubt I'll ever get back to it, I do want to like dear Edith. I suffer from knowing too much about the story line of Age of Innocence so might pick up House of Mirth since I know nothing.

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    1. Care - Undine is truly a horrid creature... but very memorable. Have you read Ethan Frome? Wharton also wrote a novel called Summer. She referred to it as "hot Ethan", and I loved it.

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  9. It truly was a wonderful day, and I'm so glad we could share the day and the book. Definitely a wonderful ending...speaking of endings, I'm coming close with Custom of the Country and so far I am NOT a happy camper. :)

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    1. Audrey - I'm going to have to refresh my memory about the ending of Custom of the Country. Let me know when you're done.

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  10. Good how I love this book! But to get to discuss it with another fan at The Mount is beyond great. What fun!

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  11. I am ashamed to admit that I have never read Edith Wharton, but I would love to read more about this particular time in New York City. Someday... someday...

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    1. Molly - Wharton certainly doesn't think very highly of New York society.. no wonder she fled to Europe. Hope you get a chance to read her someday.

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