Tuesday, August 30, 2016

One Year, 25 Books Overture: Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Madame Olenska?

This might as well have been Edith Wharton's alternative title for "The Age Of Innocence" because the whole book revolves around the presence and affairs of the beautiful Countess Ellen Minggot Olenska.

Newland Archer is a man in full during New York’s Guilded Age (ca. 1870 - 1900), he works as a lawyer in a reputable firm and is engaged to May Welland, New York’s foremost debutante. Madame Olenska is May's first cousin and as custom has it in the upper class, when one marries, the person is really married to the entire clan and not merely the one vows are given to. Enter Madame Olenska who comes to New York with quite a baggage and they are: a topsy-turvy breakup with her philandering, aristocrat husband in Europe, an upbringing by a Bohemian aunt and worse, a great sense of independence and unconscious disregard for the proclivities of New York’s society. Newland Archer is the one compelled by the Welland and Minggot families to help Madame Olenska’s predicament and despite the reserve and stoicism of a polite gentleman in this era, Newland falls in love with Countess Olenska.

Upon reading the first chapter, one can already figure out how this pans out but you want to stay on reading for the nuances and how you believe the characters should deal with conflict such as these.

There is beautiful language and cadence of storytelling in this book, it is urbane, sentimental and even though one feels as though they are listening to gossip as the words unravel, it is somehow classy. The reader would sympathize with the characters on all sides of the argument because Edith Wharton wrote this with clarity.  There is the very conventional and obedient May Welland, the free-spirited Madame Olenska who also wants to conform for the sake of her love and Newland Archer who is wrenched between duty and desire. There is too in the end, pity for all characters in the book despite their affluence because they are after all prisoners of the society which they built and the rules which they have not written but adhere to. 

It would do one a bit of good to read this classic.