Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I have wanted to read more classic American literature. It was an area where I have a distinct deficit due to a less than traditional high school American lit teacher and class. But, now that I'm older, I can pick and choose. Not too much Great Gatsby or Hemingway on my shelf, but I will happily read the books that look interesting to me. My continuing fascination with the 1920s and 30s led me to pick up a Wharton novel and one by Willa Cather. I suggested Age of Innocence to my reading group in good conscience, but come early December I just didn't get around to reading more than the first couple of chapters (honestly, no body did.)

But, I persevered and picked up the book nonetheless, and I'm glad that I did. Age of Innocence is a great look at the upper-class American world in the late-nineteenth century. The dilemma or marrying for social standing and expectations while loving on the side resonate. They mores of the era were so different from the way that we live today that it made me really stop and think about how and why we live the way that we do today. When did it become acceptable to speak our mind - always, regardless of who we might offend? When did marriage become dictated as a purely love connection? And is it a coincidence that divorce skyrocketed in this same time period? Did the nineteenth century have something right that we now lack?

Wharton's writing reminded me of Jane Austen. She has a cutting commentary on her life and society. But, like Austen, she does not need to be blunt and crass to describe that world. Her subtle innuendos and her turn of phrase say significantly more than the in the face attitude of contemporary writers. Her style of writing, however, does not lend itself to a quick beach read. Age of Innocence is a relatively slow book, not the least because of the expectations she makes about her audience. She inserts very detailed architectural, literary, and artistic details to describe her characters which are not obvious to 21st century readers.

Having finished Age of Innocence, I would like to read more Wharton. I think she paints a very clear picture of her world and I feel as though I have a better sense of the world that she inhabited. I will definitely keep her on my list for further reading.

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