The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

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Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize

The Age of Innocence is set in the upper class society of New York City. The book begins with Newland Archer, the heir to one of the best families, eagerly awaiting his marriage to the beautiful, but quiet May Welland. The arrival of May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska from Europe, leads Newland to question his choice of bride as he finds himself falling for Ellen.

I’m afraid that I didn’t enjoy this book – it annoyed me from the very first page:

But, in the first place, New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was ‘not the thing’ to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not ‘the thing’ played a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.

I just don’t enjoy reading about people whinging – especially when they are among the most priviliedged in society. I found all the characters to be dull and I didn’t care about them at all. They just seemed to go from one non-drama to the next, continually fretting about insignificant things.

There was something about the writing style that I didn’t like. It could have been the overuse of brackets, or the repetition of the word “darling!”, but whatever it was this book wound me up as much as it bored me. 

There were a few reasonable sections and the ending was actually one of the better parts of the book, but overall I was very disappointed.

I seem to be alone in disliking this book. Reviewers on Amazon describe it as “a work of beautifully subtle observation and delicacy”, “beautifully written, haunting and evocative” and “deeply moving”. I guess I just like reading about people with real problems, or dilemmas that I might have to face one day. I can only enjoy these lighter romances if they make me laugh and I’m afraid that this book failed to do that.

Recommended to those who enjoy gentle, observational books about those with more money than sense!



Did you enjoy The Age of Innocence?

Will I enjoy any of her other books?

classcirc-logoI read The Age of Innocence for the The Classics Circuit. For other Edith Wharton reviews in the month of January, please have a look at the schedule.

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  1. Verity says:

    I have mixed feelings about Edith Wharton – I have only read a couple so far (not this one) and feel she is a little overrated. I do have to read more for my Virago challenge so maybe I will come to like her…

    1. Jackie says:

      Verity, I can see why some people love her, but am surprised to hear that you didn’t enjoy her books – I thought they’d be your sort of thing. I hope you enjoy the others you have to read for your challenge.

  2. Nicole says:

    I wasn’t a big fan of The Age of Innocence. The money part didn’t bother me so much as the fact that I was bored by the characters. I don’t mind not liking characters but if you are going to be unlikeable at least be interesting or compelling to read about. I wonder if all Wharton’s books would be similar? After all the term “keeping up with the Jones'” was coined for her family. She was most definitely writing what she knew.

    1. Jackie says:

      Nicole, Perhaps you’re right – money didn’t have much to do with it. I just found the characters dull and then disliked them because they had lots of money but were still whinging! I have loved lots of wealthy literary characters in the past, but do seem to favour the underdog (I’m allowed to though – I’m British!!)

  3. Jenny says:

    I’m addicted to brackets – wonder if that would be enough to make me love Edith Wharton! I’ve never read anything by her, but I think I’ll start with a different book to this one, to give myself better odds. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, I tend to overuse brackets, but I’m not a proper writer! I’m not sure why you love brackets (I find they interupt the flow of the sentence!)

      I look forward to seeing what you think of your first Wharton – whichever you decide to pick.

  4. Rachel says:

    Oh that’s a shame Jackie; I love Edith Wharton with a passion. Henry James tends to bore me, but Edith Wharton I find riveting. I think because I’m really interested in the ‘Golden Age’ of American society in the late 1800s, I find Wharton’s writing fascinating on a historical as well as a literary level. You might like The House of Mirth better…that’s if you can face it again!

    1. Jackie says:

      Rachel, Henry James didn’t bore me – he confused me at times and overall I thought The Turn of the Screw took more effort to read than it was worth, but I’d prefer to read another James than another Wharton – it is interesting how we all like different things!

  5. The Age of Innocence was my first Wharton as well, and I too was underwhelmed, found it a little slow. However, after I read The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome I was completely hooked, particularly after Ethan Frome. Her books tend to focus on dramatic irony. I’d also recommend the short stories — Roman Fever and Xingu are my two favorites.

    1. Jackie says:

      Karen, It is interesting that you enjoyed her other books after finding this one underwhelming. It sounds as though I need to give Ethan Frome a try – perhaps in 2011!

      1. I’ve read several Wharton works since then, and that’s my least favorite, though it’s her most famous. I may go back and reread it someday with a new appreciation. I think Wharton was trying to make a point about how rigid society was, how few choices women have (a big point from House of Mirth) and how money didn’t necessarily make them happy. Even Newland didn’t have much choice in the situation, the families were so controlling.

  6. FleurFisher says:

    Well, I have to say that when I saw you were reading this book for the Classics Circuit I didn’t think it was going to be your sort of book, but I’m sorry that you liked it so little. I didn’t warm greatly to the characters, but I was intrigued by the society that created them.

    Though I love Edith Wharton this isn’t my favourite of hers – that would be The House of Mirth. And she has written some wonderful ghost stories which might appeal to you more.

    1. Jackie says:

      FleurFisher, I’m sure that the society was interesting, but I’m afraid I need to engage with the characters to enjoy a book. I suspected that I wouldn’t enjoy this book much, but am on a mission to read all the Pulitzers, so thought this was a good opportunity to get another one under the belt!

      I like the sound of the ghost stories though – I’ll keep an eye out for them.

  7. Stephanie says:

    I absolutely loved The Age of Innocence. I have read four of Wharton’s books and it was by far my favorite. Your post reminded me that I am a tour stop next week so I better get reading!

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, I can see why you’d like her and hope that you enjoy the next one as much – I hope you get it finished in time!

  8. Amanda says:

    I haven’t read this one, but I’ve read three other Wharton books and felt about the same way towards all of them. I’ve decided Wharton is just not my kind of author.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amanda, I’m amazed that you read three before deciding that she isn’t your sort of author! I think I agree with you – she’s not for me.

  9. Sandy says:

    I’ve never read this one (even though it has been on my classic radar for some time). Sad that it didn’t entertain you. I have noticed with classics, you definitely have to be in the right place to read them.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to read any book, but there are some that just don’t fit with my reading preferences and I’m afraid this was one of them. I’d be interested to read your thoughts on it though, so I hope you pick it up at some point.

  10. I wasn’t a huge fan of An Age of Innocence either, the characters didn’t engage me, but I did love Wharton’s novella, Ethan Frome. This won the Pulitzer but it doesn’t stand out in my memory; reading it on a very looooong train journey from London to Glasgow does stick in my mind (Virgin delays on tracks) and travelling first class which was apt.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, It is good to see that you agree with me on this one. I will give Ethan Frome a try at some point, but for now I have too many books that really interest me in the pile.

  11. Heidi says:

    I have to admit I tried to read House of Mirth and than even attempted the audio book of it– and just could not do it. I found it painful and it is one I gave up on. I again just found the characters really annoying as well. I had thought Age of Innocence might be better and have that on my TBR list but now I am thinking maybe not…….. I have so many other things I want to read. Although I do remember liking the movie. Perhaps just watch the movie and enjoy Daniel Day Lewis!

    1. Jackie says:

      Heidi, I haven’t watched the movie – perhaps that is a good idea. I’m sure it will come up on TV at some point.

  12. caite says:

    I not sure that I have ever read anything by Wharton (not sure I have not either, years and years ago) so I can’t give an honest opinion. But I admire you fighting the tide of Amazon opinion!

    1. Jackie says:

      caite, I’ll ensure that my opinion is put up on Amazon soon – hopefully that will give future viewers a more balanced opinion!

  13. Annabel says:

    I have read this, but can only remember the film, not the book! Wharton is one of my Mum’s favourites though, so I would happily read more by her when I have the time.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, I haven’t watched the film yet, but it sounds as though that is better than the book. I hope you enjoy any Whartons you read in the future.

  14. Aarti says:

    I’ve never tried any Wharton myself, but I have always wanted to as I love books on Society (with a capital S!). Maybe won’t start with this one…

    1. Jackie says:

      Aarti, If you love books on Society then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this book. Society isn’t really my thing – I prefer death and destruction!

  15. Steph says:

    I haven’t read this one but just before I started blogging I read The House of Mirth by Wharton and… felt kind of like you did. The story itself didn’t bother me, but I didn’t click with the writing and felt the book was kind of a chore to get through. It was a book where I could see its importance, understand why it gets studied, but at the same time I didn’t enjoy it. I’ve often wondered if I would like the Age of Innocence more… based on your review, I don’t think I will, so I’m not going to be rushing out to read it any time soon!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, A chore is the right word for this book. I am really pleased that I started to read this book way in advance so I could read just a few pages at a time and then get back to another book. This book failed to hold my attention almost all the way through. I understand why it gets studied – but I’m glad I didn’t have to!

  16. I’ve never read any Wharton. I do have this book, and I plan on trying it out. I agree, sometimes you need to be in a certain mood for classics. She seems to receive mixed reviews.

    1. Jackie says:

      Mrs Q, I look forward to seeing which side of the fence you’re on with this book. I hope you enjoy it!

  17. Kari says:

    I know I liked Edith Wharton a lot in high school, and I seem to recall liking some of her other books over this one. Such a shame, since this is probably her most famous. I think Summer was my favorite because it was just as summer should be—light and sweet. Plus, it’s on the shorter side.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kari, Light, short and sweet sounds like an improvement on this one!

  18. Simon S says:

    For some reason I have never read this classic. I saw the film at the cinema years ago am maybe thats made me feel I havent the need. I would like to try some Wharton at some point though. Sorry you didnt enjoy it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, I often avoid a classic once I’ve seen the film – well that is my excuse for not having read many! I know it is an area I need to work on, so hopefully I’ll read a few more classics this year.

  19. Louise says:

    I haven’t read this one, but I have also mainly heard the good things about it. Interesting review and kudos to you for getting through it even though you disliked it and found it boring in parts.

    1. Jackie says:

      Louise, Luckily it wasn’t that long. I don’t mind trudging through the odd boring book, as long as it is a classic and I have another good book on the go!

  20. Beth F says:

    Read it a hundred years ago and all I can remember is that I didn’t like it!

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, You have an amazing memory for your age!

  21. mee says:

    That’s interesting observation Jackie. Would you say that it’s somewhat in the same vein as Wuthering Heights? (as I recall you didn’t like WH too) I was thinking to pick up The Age of Innocence for Wharton’s Classic Circuit (but I didn’t sign up at the end).

    1. Jackie says:

      mee, no – it is very different to Wuthering Heights. I didn’t enjoy Wuthering Heights because the characters were all so miserable. I struggled to connect with them, so that is a similarity, but I wouldn’t place them together. Age of Innocence is quite a sunny book in comparison, but the characters we annoying in a different way.

  22. Carrie K. says:

    Isn’t it funny how different people respond to books? I adored The Age of Innocence and went on to read House of Mirth and Ethan Frome – I enjoyed those, too. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, It is strange! People seem to have a matching book taste and then every now and then a book will crop up and divide them. This seems to be one of those books.

  23. Teresa says:

    I’ve liked all the Whartons that I’ve read, but my view of this one is colored by the fact that I saw the movie first. (Also saw the movie of House of Mirth before reading the book, so I’m backwards around on Wharton.)

    With Wharton, I enjoy the descriptions and the social critique. The characters, as you say, are largely superficial people fretting about things that only seem important to them. But if you found the characters in Age of Innocence to be annoying, avoid Custom of the Country–I loved it, but the main character is altogether unlikable.

    1. I agree about Custom of the Country — I absolutely hated Undine at first, then I felt a little sorry for her. Mostly I felt sorry for her husband and child. However, I thought the story was interesting enough that I wanted to stick with it to find out what happened. Probably not a good choice for a first Wharton though.

    2. Jackie says:

      Teresa, OK – thanks for the warning! I’ll make sure I avoid that one.

  24. softdrink says:

    I’ve been waffling over whether or not to give this one a try. I think I’ve officially waffled in the direction of don’t bother!

    1. Jackie says:

      softdrink, I don’t like putting people off books, but if you aren’t a fan of gentle books about New York Society then this is probably safe to miss.

  25. Jenners says:

    I didn’t read the book but I saw and lliked the movie. Maybe you should check it out if you didn’t see it already.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, I’ll keep an eye out for it. If it is on television I’ll make sure I give it a try.

  26. Rebecca Reid says:

    I believe we have opposite tastes in books! I enjoyed this. House of Mirth was more whiny, I thought. And I did find this realistic. I loved the era Wharton created so well. She’s very good at capturing moral dilemmas, I think.

    I found the movie horribly boring, so I wouldn’t get your hopes of on that making this better for you. Lots of camera shots of the food.

    1. I saw the movie when it first came out, and I didn’t think it was that great, mostly because I dislike Michelle Pfeiffer — though having read the book, I think Daniel Day-Lewis was perfectly cast. Now that I’m a Wharton fan, I think I have to go back and watch it again and see how I feel about it. I still haven’t seen House of Mirth, but I love Gillian Anderson so I need to watch it.

    2. Jackie says:

      Rebecca, I think we generally have the same taste in books, it is just that I don’t like these more gentle books. We both appreciate good writing, so when there is a good plot we are both sure to love the same book.

      1. Rebecca Reid says:

        See, and I would say the plot of AofI is great!

  27. Laura says:

    Jackie, I read Age of Innocence ages ago (no pun intended) and remember liking it but details are sketchy. I’ve avoided Ethan Frome for a stupid reason: it’s standard reading in high school English (except for my school apparently) and universally loathed by 15-year-olds. I guess at 48 I might have a different perspective? LOL.

    Anyway, I read Wharton’s Roman Fever and Other Stories last year and was instantly enamored with her. I’ve since enjoyed House of Mirth and The Reef, which I’ll review for the Classics Circuit next week.

    Enjoyed your post!

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, I look forward to reading your review next week. It sounds as though older women seem to like Ethan Frome, so I think you’ll be OK!

  28. Valerie says:

    I’ve read several of Wharton’s works, but the last time I did was a really long time ago — at least 10 years. As I recall, I liked “Age of Innocence” but not as much as some of her other books. I’m looking forward to reading her for my Classics Circuit post to see if she has stood the passage of time for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Valerie, Sorry for taking ages to respond. It is interesting to know that you enjoyed her other books a bit more. I hope you enjoyed your re-reading.

  29. julia says:

    I didn’t like the book either. I couldn’t even finish it because it was so difficult to get into. The story and people did not seem real. To perfect and pretty. If you’re going to think about something and then regret (knowing that you’d regret it to begin with pretty much) why do it?

    1. Jackie says:

      julia, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time! It is good to know that I’m not the only one to dislike stories about perfect, pretty people!

  30. Janaki sastry says:

    Like most of your readers we too had a mixed rection to the book in our reading group.
    PERSONALLY I FOUND IT A BIT BORING. Then its me, I suppose.

    1. Jackie says:

      Janaki sastry, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time! It sounds as though we share feelings on this book – boring is a good word to describe it!


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