The Age of Innocence is my second foray into the New York of Edith Wharton, where convention rules the lives of upper class men and women, including our hero, Newland Archer. Archer is a young attorney and member of a well-respected family, who has recently become engaged to May Welland, a lovely young woman from an equally upstanding background. Newland, fancying himself a man whose intellectual interests put him above the rest of his set, believes that he can draw May out of the naivete expected of women of their class and interest her in the life of the mind. He rather quickly loses interest in this pursuit (disguising his loss of interest as recognition that she is not capable of change) when he falls for May's cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen has fled her Polish husband, who was abusive to her in an unspecified manner.
While Newland at first helps Ellen because she is May's cousin and he does not want their family to be embarrassed, he soon has a more amorous interest in the countess. Although their love is mutual, Ellen does not want to hurt Ellen, whom Newland proceeds to marry. Ellen spends two years trying to avoid him, while he makes various excuses to seek her out and press his suit (we might regard him as a stalker today). Meanwhile, the family, having convinced Ellen not to divorce her husband, is trying to convince her to return to her husband. She eventually returns to Europe, but vows never to reunite with the count. In an epilogue set nearly 30 years later, we learn what happened to Newland and May, with Wharton seeming to give Newland a boost by showing how he (unlike May) had adapted with the times and became "a good citizen"; the book ends with one final opportunity for Newland to see Ellen.
Ironically, The Age of Innocence is neither as tragic nor as entertaining as House of Mirth, which I loved. From the beginning, Newland seems as hypocritical as the New York society that is his milieu; while Ellen might evoke greater sympathy, the reader rarely sees her except in conversation with Newland, so she is not a fully realized character a la Lily Bart. While there are constant ups and downs and a genuine tragedy in the House of Mirth, little actually happens in The Age of Innocence. When Newland suddenly has the thought that May could die and leave him free to find happiness with Ellen, I thought perhaps he was going to take nefarious action, but, alas, such was not the case.
I listened to an audio version of The Age of Innocence, and the narrator (Mary Sarah) did not enhance the book. She read extremely fast and in a rather flat tone (perhaps I should have suspected that the version selling for $.95 might not be the finest reading).
The Age of Innocence was the first book written by a woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, and part of me thinks that might be because Wharton seemed to be indicting women and their "innocence" as the perpetrators of the hypocrisy and strict (yet pointless) convention that ruled New York. If you haven't read any Wharton and want to give her a try, I recommend House of Mirth as a much better starting point.
He perceived with a flash of chilling insight that in future many problems would be thus negatively solved for him, but as he paid the hansom and followed his wife's long train inside the house, he took refuge in the comforting platitude that the first six months were always the most difficult in marriage. After that, I suppose, we shall pretty nearly have finished rubbing off each other's angles, he reflected. But the worst of it was that May's pressure was already bearing on the very angles whose sharpness he most wanted to keep.
(This passage has the virtue of demonstrating what I like about Wharton's prose, and the vice of manifesting who seems always to be blamed in The Age of Innocence--women!)