The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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October 13, 2013

The Age of Innocence

When JoAnn and I started reading The Age of Innocence together, she asked me if I had read it before (she hadn't). She was giving me a very graceful hint that I shouldn't give anything away (I'm glad she did, because I might have!) but it made me wonder whether this was my first time re-reading it. I know I was first introduced to Edith Wharton (and The Age of Innocence) in college -- I was even reading from my slightly tattered college paperback this time!}, but I couldn't tell if my strong recollection of the characters and the plot came from reading or from the excellent 1993 Martin Scorcese film. So I've checked the 'life list' {or, at least, 'since-college list') that I keep, and it looks like it could be.  I found that really surprising.

But, like all the best novels, it definitely rewards re-reading, and I did find some new things in it to appreciate.  One was how detailed it is about its period {or, about EW looking back from 1920 at "Old New York"}.  She is looking at everything -- clothes, food, culture, houses, social standing, what's acceptable and what's not -- with a critical and satirical eye, not a nostalgic one -- but I could still sense that she was painting an accurate picture of the period and the society she was writing about. It almost seems like we can look back with her at all the things she did not like about the world her younger self lived in -- but we can only sense what she did like and did approve of in contrast. 

Because the other thing I noticed was that for me, at least, EW did not draw one single sympathetic, admirable character -- and that made me wonder whether she ever had. Not self-absorbed Newland, or childlike May, or 'poor,' indecisive, weak-willed Ellen, or any of the people around them. Even Mrs. Manson Mingott (my favorite character) who starts out to be such an unconventional, wonderful character loses some of her charm when she reacts so bitterly to women who break the rules. But I almost wish I had been reading it for the first time, because I would have found myself really wanting to know what would happen to all of these people. And the ending is worth waiting for, definitely.

I'm re-immersed in Edith Wharton again, too, because I'm trying to finish The Custom of the Country in time for the 100th anniversary of its serialization (which finished in October, 1913).  The same things seem to be happening in it -- the magnifying lens on the culture, the unsympathetic characters, but with larger, less subtle brushstrokes.  I'm enjoying it very much, and looking forward one more time to finding out what happens. :)

Thank you, JoAnn, for reading along with me. If others have read The Age of Innocence, tell us what you took away?

1 comment:

JoAnn said...

It was such a treat to read this book and tour The Mount with you! I'm working on my post today and am certain this is a book I will reread. Who knows, I may even finally pull the Hermione Lee bio off my shelf...

Thank you for visiting!

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