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.
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?