Impossible Standards of the Impossibly Wealthy: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

June 13, 2013 Audio Books, Classics, Romance 45

Salutations Bookworms,

I’ve made a delightful discovery. You know that I love to listen to audio books on road trips. You also know that I like to switch it up every now and again and read a classic. Part of the reason I have been avoiding classics lately is that they tend to be dense. They require more brain power than contemporary works written in my colloquial vernacular. I’ve been buying audio books to play through my iPhone only to have discovered that new releases are OUTRAGEOUSLY expensive. Solution?! AUDIO BOOK CLASSICS! I was able to buy The Age of Innocence for less than $2 and the audio book narrator put the emphasis on just the right phrases for me to appreciate the humor and sarcasm in the dated volume. The cherubim are singing and the clouds have parted! It’s a MIRACLE!


Guys, I like Edith Wharton. I’ve read Ethan Frome and Summer and enjoyed them both. (That doesn’t mean I didn’t laugh appreciatively when Sarah at Sarah Says Read made a joke about the sled-as-suicide-method…)  She does such beautiful things with language that I FEEL like I’m THERE. While listening to The Age of Innocence, I could picture every ensemble and glance of the NYC upper crust.

Newland Archer is a rather shallow fellow. He’s been born to privilege and spends his days contemplating fashion and proper behavior for the people of his insular community. One evening at the opera, Archer meets the cousin of his soon-to-be-made-public fiance. Ellen Olenska originated from New York Society, but was married to a Polish count and spent a number of years in Europe. Sadly, this count was a bit of a douche. He philandered and was cruel to Ellen. Leaving your aristocratic husband in the 1870s, despite his douchebaggery and mistresses (and perhaps misters?), was universally frowned upon. It was an era where the wealthy thrived on hypocrisy (okay, so maybe THAT hasn’t changed) and discreet affairs were tolerated.  An affair was no grounds for divorce amongst the New York City elite, PARTICULARLY if the spouse in question is a fabulously wealthy European aristocrat.

Archer’s primary concern with Ellen’s arrival is for the reputation of his naive and pretty betrothed, May Welland. He doesn’t want her good name sullied (because he’s supposed to be marrying into a GOOD family, see?) Rather than allow Ellen’s appearance to scandalize their fashionable set, Archer hijacks the occasion and uses it to announce his engagement to May. This is viewed as a gentlemanly move all around, and the Countess Olenksa herself appreciates the gesture of drawing the attention away from her arrival. At first, Newland finds Ellen to be a novelty with her European ways and her lack of care for the opinions of the fancy folk. Soon, however, Newland Archer finds himself drawn to Ellen Olenska, and she to him. However. She’s married. To a count. And Newland is about to marry her cousin May. Their love seems star crossed- it’s thwarted at every turn despite their passions.

No, that's not the Countess Olenska. That's Edith Wharton. Maybe she's on her way to the opera. Or posing for a portrait in Newport. Whatever. SOURCE

No, that’s not the Countess Olenska. That’s Edith Wharton. Maybe she’s on her way to the opera. Or posing for a portrait in Newport. Whatever. SOURCE

Can you spoil a book that’s been around this long? Maybe. I’ll do it anyway. I have no scruples. Ellen and Newland never do get to hook up, other than a few kisses and scandalous conversation. A lot of promises, near misses, and inconceivably bad timing combine to make their romance desperate and tragic. This book reminded me a lot of Anna Karenina, only with some gender swapping, role reversal, and lack of suicides by train, sled, or other means of conveyance. In short? Totally worth the effort. Particularly when half the work was done for me by a brilliant narrator whose inflection kept me enthralled and never drowsy. Three cheers for carriages, parasols, and the impossible standards of the impossibly wealthy. Hear, hear, Edith Wharton! May your subtle, snarky social commentary live on in perpetuity.

Alright, Bookworms. Apparently there was a 1991 movie version of this book made starring Daniel Day Lewis as Archer (tolerable), Winona Rider as May Welland (a stretch, at best) and Michelle Pfieffer as Ellen Olenska (horrendously and completely wrong and awful.) I learned of this while trolling the internet, and I sure as heck won’t be seeking it out. You know you’ve been waiting to rant about this one. Every book lover has this problem. What casting decisions for the movies based on your favorite books have made you CRINGE?

45 Responses to “Impossible Standards of the Impossibly Wealthy: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton”

  1. Ashley F

    I have to admit, I’ve never made it through an audio book. I downloaded a few back in the day and I found that if I was doing something else I’d just tune the book out to background noise. Apparently I have ADD.

    • Words for Worms

      I can only listen to them in the car. I find they keep my brain more engaged than music, which is good because it makes me a better driver than when I’m all zoned out in music land. Music lets my mind wander too much.

      • Ashley F

        I’ve never tried in the car. I had one going once while I was jogging and found I just zoned out and ignored it then would catch random words and be all confused.

  2. Charleen

    The only thing that comes to mind is how OLD everyone was in the HP movies. Not the kids, I get that kids grow faster than movies do (and honestly they were like 21 playing 17 in Deathly Hallows, that’s really not bad). But the adults! Lily & James were like 20 when they died, so why do all their pictures look like they’re in their 30’s? And Snape and Sirius and Pettigrew should all be in their 30s NOW, so why are they all like 50? I mean, I guess since they’re ALL older than they should be you can sort of pretend Lily & James had Harry much later in life than they did. But still. Bugs me.

    Of course, aside from the age thing there is some truly spectacular casting in those movies, so I guess I can’t be too upset.

    • Words for Worms

      Yeah the kids aging in HP didn’t bug me much, but I hear you on the other grown ups. I mean, Alan Rickman NEEDED to be Snape. But Lupin and Pettigrew and Sirius? I suppose I could believe that they’d aged prematurely given their hardships, but LIly and James were definitely too old. Of course if they’d cast them at the appropriate age, they would have seemed really REALLY young to have had an 11 year old son. I’m guessing at motivations here. I have zero proof. But I did think Lupin should have been way handsomer.

      • Charleen

        Well the first time we saw Lily & James wasn’t in a photograph, it was in the mirror, and the argument I heard was that “that’s what they would have looked like now.” Which… I get that Harry wouldn’t be picturing his parents as being 20, but those images weren’t pulled from his imagination, so I don’t really buy that. Plus, again, why are all their classmates so old?

        Honestly the movie characters are so ingrained in my head I can’t even remember now who I was surprised by and who I wasn’t. (But you’re right, Rickman IS Snape… maybe that guided the rest of the casting decisions in terms of age? I dunno…) Maggie Smith is dead on as well. Dumbledore… I liked Richard Harris better, but even had he lived through the rest of the movies, he seemed too frail for some of the stuff Dumbledore does in later books. But still, I never completely accepted Michael Gambon. What we needed was someone who acted like an old man when it suit him, but was secretly still a badass. I’m thinking of Ian McKellan in the second (I think?) LOTR movie, when the group is supposed to give up their weapons, including Gandalf’s staff, and he’s like, “You wouldn’t part an old man from his walking stick, would you?” and then totally lays down the hurt. That.

  3. Sarah Says Read

    I really should forgive Wharton for Ethan Frome, and try reading this or Summer. She’s a classic author for a reason, right? Right. And she looks so SAUCY posing like that!

    • Words for Worms

      Ethan Frome is legit my least fave Wharton of the three I’ve read. I think I might like Age of Innocence best, but Summer was really good too. I enjoy watching the wealthy whip themselves into a tizzy over propriety. Sort of Downton Abbey (I think? I haven’t actually seen it) with Americans. I mean, don’t YOU leave your Paris dresses in storage for at least a year so you don’t appear boastful and overly fashionable? I know I do.

  4. JoulesDellinger

    Ok casting decisions that irked me… Katherine Heigl in the Stephanie Plum movie, One for the Money. No. Just no. Anna Paquin as Sookie and Stephen Moyer as Bill on True Blood. No.

    BTW, I think I would be really good at being impossibly wealthy.

    • Words for Worms

      I’ve only read one Stephanie Plum and I got really mad about the Katherine Heigl casting. The True Blood cast doesn’t really bug me because it’s barely the same story anyway. But you would be EXCELLENT at impossibly wealthy. I hope that happens one day. And that you share it with me LOL.

      • JoulesDellinger

        Of course! One of those things that impossibly wealthy people do is fly their friends all over the world for amazing vacations. That’s why I’d be so darn good at it!

  5. Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader

    I’ll admit that I didn’t read your full review. I saw the word spoiler and I skimmed 😉 I *think* I may have read this a billion years ago but I’m not 100% certain. (I really wish I had kept track of every book I’ve read since I was 8 or so)

  6. Wayne

    Pssss. I have a confession. Cliff’s Notes was my best friend in High School. That helped me get though “classics” such as “The Bear”, a short story by Faulkner and *Billy Budd* by Melville. That being said, I never read any of Edith Wharton’s books or any nineteenth century Victorian novels, except for *The Ambassadors* which I had to read for a college class. Enough with the PBS adoptions of these books to the screen. Why don’t they do something interesting like Camus’s *The Stranger* or something by Kafka? Johnny Depp could do a Kafka character 😉

    • Words for Worms

      Ugh. Melville. Moby Dick was the only time I did rely on Cliff’s Notes. It seems rather cruel to foist that behemoth on unsuspecting 11th graders… I enjoyed more of my assigned reading than I despised but Melville and I just don’t get along. I didn’t care for The Scarlet Letter either, and was amused to learn that Hawthorne was a HUGE Melville fan. Figures, right? He wrote him fan mail!

      • Wayne

        I don’t know why we didn’t have to read *Moby Dick*. Probably it was because Queequeg and Ishmael apparently had a thing going and because of the books homosexual overtones, it was decide at my school district not to expose 11th graders to it. *Billy Budd* was about a sadomasochistic relationship so go figure 😉 The Scarlet Letter was too gloomy at the time we had to read it: I didn’t get Hawthorne’s subtle humor. The Reverend Dimmesdale indeed!

  7. Turn the Page Reviews

    I saw the movie and never read the book-I know, I feel the shame already. I have this on my growing list of TBR classics if I ever get the nerve to join up with the classics club!

    • Words for Worms

      Naaaaaaaaaaaaaah there’s no shame in not having read every classic ever. Having watched the movie at least gives you a Jeopardy worthy knowledge of the characters (assuming they didn’t screw them up too badly.) I’m a stickler for stupid stuff. Like hair color. Ellen was supposed to be brunette. May’s hair was on the lighter side. Hair dye exists. Use it, right?

      • Turn the Page Reviews

        Agree- they should at least attempt to look like the character the author created! An I agree with the “problem” casting listed in your review and by others in their comments.

  8. The Underground Writer

    When I saw “Age of Innocence” I immediately thought of the song “End of the Innocence” (By Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby) so i immediately started to get teary eyed. It’s one of those “waaaahhhhh!” songs. (That, and “I can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt” and “Send in the Clowns” by Judy Collins: Double: WAAAAAHHHH!”

      • The Underground Writer

        Wind Beneath My Wings. Whew! That is a tough one. Hey – that is one example where the MOVIE is BETTER than the book (I’m referring to Beaches.) Normally the movies butcher the books, but I have to say that the movie Beaches was far better than the book. Now that is a Top Ten Tuesday idea…

  9. Andi Miller

    Cool! I have a hard time reading classics sometimes too (the brain power you mentioned). I have chosen audio instead on several occasions. Such was the case with On the Road. I would’ve wanted to kill myself if I read the written version. The rambly style was much better when it was read aloud. Glad this one worked for you!

    • Words for Worms

      I’ve been meaning to read On The Road forever! Perhaps that will be my next road trip selection. Audio is such a nice change of pace sometimes ;).

      • Wayne

        Please don’t buy a ticket for the *On The Road* movie, if it’s still showing. The film has a 45% “rotten” rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 90 reviews and an average score of 5.5/10 according to Wikipedia. It probably in Red Box now gathering dust.

      • Wayne

        I think the success of audio version would rest upon who was narrating *On The Road*. Hopefully it wouldn’t be somebody like Ed Asner. Spalding Gray would have been a good choice but unfortunately he’s long gone.

  10. Rory

    I like The Age of Innocents, but I hated the modern update of it released last year (?) The Innocents. That type of classic just can’t be redone, I feel the same way about Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice.

    The movie is ‘supposed’ to be good, but I really didn’t care for it. If you haven’t read the book, I imagine it’s not so bad…

    • Words for Worms

      I typically don’t watch movie versions of classics that I’ve read knowing that I’ll just be nitpicking them. Nobody likes to watch a movie with me sitting there going “she’s supposed to be blonde!” “that’s not when that happens!” “wait, where is so and so?” I turn into Snobby McCrankypants. Not pretty. Better if I stick to mindless comedies.

  11. tinykitchenstories

    Tom Cruise as Lestat. She wrote it for Rutger Hauer, and he was too old by the time they got to making Interview with a Vampire. Then there was the ridiculous Exit to Eden they made from her book. I must say that I love the Lord of The Rings trilogy. Just as I imagined it!

    And I apologize to the True Blood fans. I’m still reeling that my old friend Stephen Moyer was cast for it. And then he married Anna! But then I may just be cheesed off because now that he’s all famous he doesn’t talk to us little people anymore…

    • Words for Worms

      Hahahha Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher about made my head implode. I haven’t read the Anne Rice books, but it’s hard to imagine that was the best possible casting choice. You know Stephen Moyer? Crazy!

      • tinykitchenstories

        I know! He went to school with my ex-husband. He used to be so broke he’d sleep on our sofa and borrow money for the train home. It’s disappointing I don’t see him at all, even though he’s down the road in Los Angeles…sigh.

        • Words for Worms

          Whaaaaaaaat?!?!?! Stephen Moyer slept on your couch?!?!?! That’s crazy and awesome, but a bummer he’s currently so close and yet so far. Maybe you will run into each other at Starbucks or something and you’ll be all “Hey famous vampire, buy me a coffee, I gave you train fare and let you couch surf!”

          • tinykitchenstories

            He’d better! Yeah, he used to be totally irresponsible, like he was our teenage child. Oh well, I guess that’s the breaks, eh? I’m actually happy he’s found success. It’s so hard for me to watch him on TV though–I can’t help but giggle!

  12. MeglyMc

    I will also go on the record as saying that One For the Money was one of the WORST film adaptations of a book EVER. Seriously, it played like a really bad USA original series pilot, for a show that blatantly wasn’t going to get picked up for a full season. Aw. Ful.

  13. Care

    All through your post, I was imagining that tense dramatic scene with DDL looking achingly at Michelle Pfeiffer and thought to myself, “SO WELL DONE! What GREAT casting!!” but I haven’t read the book. I’ve only read Ethan Frome and loved it as something to make fun of. Seriously, all the parodies on youtube are hysterical.
    I have yet to see the new Great Gatsby but have been hating Tobey Maguire as Nick since casting was announced.

    • Words for Worms

      I haven’t seen the movie, I totally believe DDL was amazing, I just… I don’t know. Michelle Pfeiffer just makes me think of bad 90s movies… I’m going to have to look up those Ethan Frome parodies! That sounds like fun 🙂

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