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Age of Innocence

 Review – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Reviewer: Calli Pilkington

The Book club’s book for February: The Age of Innocence tells the story of newly engaged Newland Archer, his fiancé May Welland and the bohemian Ellen Olenska who has recently returned  from Europe pursued by the scandal of her failed marriage. It explores the rigid code of old New York Society, and how unforgiving and inflexible life is within its glass walls.

Wharton uses irony a great deal throughout this novel and with subtlety interlaces between all the layers of bigotry and obsession that Ellen Olenska fails to penetrate.  From the outset, Wharton uses a slightly mocking tone and it is May that forces Ellen and Newland together.

The plot could have come mere melodrama, where it not for the writers superior prose, her descriptions of the clothes, surroundings, social outings, food. All of this sets the sumptuous set for a love triangle that is ironically chaste.  It is this descriptive quality that allows the reader to draw comparisons between say the Beaufort’s and the austere Van Der Luyden’s.  Its is a social commentary of the time, a looking glass on a ‘Closed Society’.  Its is also a illustrates a contest between the ‘fashionable’ and ‘clever people’.  The naïve and unconventional Madam Olenska comments that it is like being ‘on stage with a polite audience that never applauds’.

The level of detail executed by Wharton, adds so much credibility and depth to the novel, even if one where ignorant of the authors background you couldn’t help but realise that the writer had experienced this ‘civilised’ society first hand.

The only real ‘innocent’ in the novel is Newland, we see May’s manipulative nature emerge in the latter half of the novel.  She is the only one that emerges triumphant through her crocodile tears.

Age of Innocence is a triumph and as a Pulitzer Prize winner, paved the way for other female writers of the time.  All in the Book Club, felt that this was a heavy condensed read, even academic.  But is well worth the time and the effort as the rich classical writing deserves the attention.