Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book #3: Age of Innocence

I think I have a new bff and her name is Edith Wharton. Yes she is all dead and stuff but she wrote this amazing book that made me all gasp out loud and that means I adore her.

I am pretty sure that a 30-year-old woman reading Age of Innocence for the first time must be similar to how a 14-year-old girl feels reading something like Twilight for the first time. Teens enjoy being sucked into romantic irrationality and adults love being sucked into romantic rationality. I suppose that is because teens are self-centered and adults are gluttons for punishment? This book was definitely full of punishment, imprisonment, and injustice all set against the insanely addictive (and rigid) atmosphere of upper-class late 1800s Manhattan.

I don't want to dish out a ton of spoilers because I really do think that all of you should take out a weekend and read this book. 

Besides the tense and intricate plot, my favorite part about this book were the characters. So far we are have read two other books about Victorian-era America (or relics of that era living in the 20th century) but this is the first time we get a truly deep look into the Victorian mindset. It is easy to criticize an entire culture of people who seem to do nothing except sit around gossiping about one another, until you realize that their entire existence truly depends on what they think of one another and the preservation of their society's strict standards. Author Edith Wharton does a great job of allowing us to feel annoyed at the fussiness of their world while still fully understanding the characters' panicky attempts to stay fully engrossed in "proper society." Every time I wanted to smack or shake a character for a seemingly ridicu-stupid-ilious decision, the next paragraph made me totally grasp their point of view. I never agreed, but I understood. Even the most hard headed character is just a genuinely well intentioned victim of circumstance.

The feminist stance of the book's main character, Archer, is admirable but definitely to be attributed to the female author. He wasn't a fake feminist like you get in some other books. He really and truly did believe in the equal value of women's opinions, right to freedom, capacity for intelligence, and so much more. My only real criticism of this poor old sap is that he is just a really emotional soul who is easily frustrated and way too easily offended which leaves him prone to goofy outbursts and massive conclusion jumping. As proof of his feminism, he loses his patience and wigs out on men and women equally.

I don't have much else to say about this book. I'm not feeling super retrospective at the moment. From start to finish this was a very solid novel so maybe I'm just better at insults than I am at compliments.

Oh, one particularly funny little plot device was the xenophobia of Americans. This stood out because, once again, a Pulitzer author was going out of their way to truly embrace the Americanism of its characters. No longer immigrants or even the grandchildren of immigrants, these Pulitzer novels are about Americans who are not just proud of their nationality, but feel that it is deep rooted. Comments like "Why would anyone want a French tutor?" and the observation that when an American tourist goes abroad, he just should go above and beyond to make sure he doesn't interact with any locals really made me giggle. Not much has changed in that regard! The annoying and bullish American tourist is as old as the telegraph and the steam-powered yacht. Distrust of foreigners and their odd ways is very central to the entire story.

One last note: Read this book. If you don't like it, feel free to come back to this post and tell me why. We don't need to agree but I would love to hear from someone who was less than impressed with this novel.

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