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Kiln People
Beth Meacham, David Brin

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton, Maureen Howard
“The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tasted and long since forgotten. He could not see beyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to, for he was not conscious of any wish to speak to Madame Olenska or to hear her voice. He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on, and the way the sky and sea enclosed it, the rest of the world might seem less empty.”
Oh my God, obsessed much?

Actually that quote is misleading because The Age of Innocence is not about a man’s obsession with a beautiful girl. If it was you wouldn’t be reading this review because I wouldn’t have been able to make it past the first chapter. I just put it there because it’s a nice quote to get the ball rolling as it were.

How many books do you read because Hollywood made a movie of it? Books you would otherwise not have heard of? Quite a few in my case. I saw the Martin Scorsese film adaptation in 1993, I didn’t actually like it; I can’t remember why, but the word “boring” springs to mind. In all fairness, I was not in a receptive frame of mind for character-based melodrama in those days. Anyway, I decided to “read” this audiobook version because it was recommended to me as one of Librivox’s* best.

The Age of Innocence is about New York’s society during 1870, a time of rapid social changes (thank you Wikipedia!). The novel depicts the upper class “Old New York” society as ultra conservative, prejudiced and intolerant. As the book opens the protagonist Newland Archer is about to marry May Welland who he seems to regard as some kind of vapid trophy wife or arm candy. He is pleased with himself until Countess Ellen Olenska enters the scene and unintentionally rocks his world. She is something you don’t see every day in “Old New York” a badass strong willed independent lady, beautiful too of course. She has just separated from a European husband who is a despicable cad. This makes her a controversial figure in New York’s high society where women are supposed to stay married to their husbands for better or for worse. Her personality and circumstances fascinate Archer who is experiencing a feeling of ennui from the way his life is proceeding too precisely on track.

What makes the novel interesting for me is the depiction of the New York society which I knew nothing about and the dilemma faced by the central characters. Newland Archer is about to “settle for” someone who would make him look good in society, suddenly he finds himself pursuing this enigmatic, charismatic and downright sexy countess. Poor Countess Olenska is tempted but is far too smart to bring even more scandal on herself, not to mention her consideration for the bride to be, May Welland, who is her cousin.

I personally do not have a lot of time for Newland Archer who has to decide between Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer in their prime (movie reference). Though Michelle Pfeiffer (Countess Olenska) is not really an option. However, I am glad to report this is not a tale of adultery, it is more like a satire of the social mores of the time. The book is exquisitely well written, the characters are vivid though the protagonist is not particularly prepossessing. The book ends in a somewhat inconclusive note, as the author deliberately frustrates the reader by not giving the story a proper closure in order to avoid predictability. She did a good job of that, I am duly frustrated and will knock off one star in my rating for her troubles.

My thanks to Ms. Brenda Dayne for her gracious and beautiful audiobook narration. (Download link).

* Librivox is an online digital library of free public domain audiobooks read by volunteers.