What was New York City like after the Civil War but before the turn of the century? Well let me clarify that question – what was New York City like during said time period for the well-established upper class? It was a world of dinners, theatre, balls and of course customs and proper behavior. Well let me clarify that – proper behavior on the surface (behind closed doors and in whispered gossip was sort of a different story).
This is the world depicted in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.
Newland Archer has got it all, money, a gentleman’s law “career” and good social standing and connections. Now he knows he must settle in to the proper order of marriage. Luckily he has the equally well-connected, wealthy and lovely May Welland. With their engagement only months away from being announced (as was proper at the time), to be followed by an engagement period to allow for attending to all the social contrivances, Newland’s well-ordered world is set off its axis when May’s disgraced cousin Countess Ellen Olenska arrives in New York, attending the Opera in the family box for all to see.
Worried about how this reappearance of Ellen will be seen by their New York social set, Newland insists to May that very evening on announcing their engagement at the ball following the Opera, which May reluctantly agrees to as a way to appease the man she loves. While Newland does not approve of Ellen, he tries to look out for the reputation of his soon-to-be family and finds himself in positions of defending her, and also having to spend time meeting with her for family and business reasons. As he does this, his time with her begins to change him and how he looks at his world.
Throughout the novel there were times I loved and cheered for each of main characters – Newland, May and Ellen – and times that I was frustrated and angry with each of them. But at the end of the book (and I won’t spoil it here), I will just say I was left settled, given how each of the characters grew over time.
As you may have noticed in my quick overview of the book I repeatedly used words that focused on the concept of “proper” and “social standing.” These ideas were the main motivators for the character behavior in the book. May had very set beliefs of how things should be, as did Newland until Ellen appeared in his life with her “continental” lifestyle that made him start questioning what he thought to be true (even if he might have been seen as a bit bohemian himself with some of the company that he kept – like journalists and artists).
Aside from the development of the characters, I enjoyed all of the descriptions of New York at that time. While it really only focused on the high society, and what they thought of as bohemian, areas – I loved when Wharton would note and describe a specific street or location so I could compare it with today’s New York.
I will say, it was a bit of a slow start, and I was worried I would never keep all the names straight and get through the more narrative beginning. But once I got into the flow of Wharton’s writing and let myself be led along through the social customs of privileged NYC, it became a great way to start my 2010 reading year.
This book was on my 2010 TBR Challenge list.