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The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence, with eBook - Edith Wharton, Laural Merlington I hate to do it, but I'm gonna have to pull the "guy" card here: this book was quintessential women's fiction and it bored me. I'm sure plenty of male readers do like Edith Wharton, and it's not like I only read dudely fiction. I find Jane Austen marvelously witty, and while I did not like Wuthering Heights, it at least had dynamic characters and a twisted enough plot to hold my attention. But The Age of Innocence is all wistful self-examination that never goes very deep, and a lot of delicate interactions between super-privileged rich folks who communicate in code. So if you're fascinated by inner turmoil, marital angst, and 19th century etiquette, this book may be for you, but I found the lack of any real drama, the fact that all the characters were cut from the same cloth, and the stifling circumscription of the setting made for a dull book.

This is a period novel set in 1870s Upper Manhattan. The main character, Newland Archer, has just enough awareness to realize that his wife and his high society is constraining and boring, and not enough independence or determination to do much more than flirt with the notion of leaving either. So everyone lives very proper lives and we get lots of descriptions of people and places and table settings. Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for her portrayal of this society, and she describes the rich families of 19th century New York and their tribal customs with breezy but anthropological detail. This is a time and place where the color of the dress you wear to the opera or the soup you serve as a first course is fraught with social implications. Wharton describes the inner lives and outer appearance of her characters and the world they live in in minute detail, but ultimately, I just did not find them very interesting, and the plot was an almost superfluous element.

I rate books according to two criteria: first and foremost, how much I enjoyed them, and secondly, how "good" I think they are in an objective sense. (Yes, I think to some degree you can make objective judgments about the quality of a book, whether or not you enjoy it.) So, I didn't enjoy The Age of Innocence much, but that's completely because of my subjective tastes. I'm sure other people love it for reasons that are good and fine to them. Objectively, Wharton's writing is vivid and descriptive and at times there is a sparkle of wit and a flash of humor, though I wish I'd seen more of it, and she really brings the setting to life and makes us understand the characters to their depths. (Not a great challenge, as there isn't much depth to them -- this is not a knock on Wharton's characterization, but on the people she is describing.) So I give it 2 stars for my enjoyment and 4 stars for the writing quality, averaging to 3 stars.

If you like this kind of book, I still think Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope are better reads.