Nov 19, 2009

Global Classic Challenge Review #1

 The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton

I'm always cautious when it comes to reading classics. Sometimes the expectations are too high, sometimes you approach them with a pinch of prejudice and miss the magic of the book by constantly waiting for the dreary part to kick in. But Sandy did an amazing job when she compiled the list for this challenge. I never read anything by Edith Wharton, though House of Mirth is very high on my TBR list, and now it's launched straight to the top.

The Age of Innocence is one of those books everybody has heard about, but few have actually read it.It was a bit slow to start, to get used to Edith's style and the society she is writing about. But very soon I found myself dreading to find out what happens next.
The late-nineteenth century New York society is just as it sounds to be--stiff, conservative and heavily snobbish. So are the characters when you first meet them; Archer Newland is a young attorney who seems to be bored by his life, but doesn't do much to change it. His lovely fiance, May Welland is a naive porcelain doll, too well-trained to even realize the shallowness of her life. But everything changes when her cousine Countess Ellen Olenska arrives to the town. A fresh-divorced, beautiful woman of free spirit and a huge appetite for life and love shakes the foundations of the society and raises many an eyebrow with her unrestrained spirit. She moves Archer out of his apathy and makes him reexamine his plan for his future. Is a boring, but cozy life with his obedient wife all he has to look forward to? Would he be happier with Ellen, cruising the world and soaking in all its miracles and possibilities?
And most important, is he strong enough to go against the rules for love?

Wharton's writing is superb. I just loved her subtle irony towards the stiff society and the portraying of her characters. They are everything but flat, prone to surprise you with their depth and strength. No wonder Edith Wharton won a Pulitzer for this book in 1921.

May is a character I have mixed feelings about, or as old people here would say--she neither stinks nor smells. Is she really so naive to be worth of pitying her? Or is she smart/desperate/heartless to use the pregnancy trick to keep her husband? I don't know.
Ellen is a strong woman who just wants to live her life, but also wants to be accepted and loved. I felt sorry for her; in her time and age, it was clearly impossible.
Archer...he is a character who surprised me most, though I was so angry he didn't follow his heart. In the end, I believe it couldn't have turned out any other way, and that's the tragic part in his and Ellen's love story.

Here are several quotes I wrote down in my reading journal.

  • "It is you who are telling me; you're opening my eyes to things I'd looked at so long that I'd ceased to see them..." A. Newland, p 48
  • "The real loneliness is living among all these kind of people who only ask one to pretend." Ellen Olenska, p50
  •  "Each time you happen to me over and over again..." A. Newland, p185
  • "(...) because when we've been apart, and I'm looking forward to seeing you, every thought is so burnt up in a great flame. But then you come; and you're so much more than an hour or two every now and then; with wastes of thirsty waiting between, that I can sit perfectly still beside you, like this,with all other vision in my mind, just quietly trusting to it to come true..."             A. Newland, p187

I love the last one best. I cited it to one of my college friends and it convinced her to borrow it from the library immediately.
I hope I convinced you too, if you haven't already, to read this book, because I truly enjoyed it.
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