The Age of Innocence: Book 2 and Review

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

This is going to be spoiler-tastic, but I'll put a brief review at the end of the write-up in case you haven't read the book and want to know my thoughts on it. If you haven't read this book you are definitely not going to want to read the next sentence, so close your eyes, okay?

I was BLOWN AWAY when I started reading Book 2 of The Age of Innocence. I hadn't read the book in a few days after finishing Book 1, and I was expecting Newland to waffle around and have some introspection before his wedding. My foolish, naive little heart thought that perhaps he would have another real heart-to-heart with May and tell her that she had been right, there was someone else, and that he was going to throw society out the window and be a bohemian and live in a shabby house for the rest of his life.

Okay, I didn't really think he would do that. This is Edith Wharton, here - has she ever let one of her characters off easy? But I hoped that he would. So I was very shocked when the first page of the second half had Newland fidgeting with the ring and waiting for his blushing bride to glide down the aisle. I think that is one of the more poignant moments in the book - that realization that even though he has changed his mind, he already made his choice. He loved himself and that immaterial concept of a good name far more than he loved Ellen Olenska. I don't think May had anything to do with his decision by that point.

Of course, he couldn't just let Ellen go at first. He has a few fleeting moments of perceived marital bliss during the honeymoon, but soon he realizes that his fears about May didn't go away with time - they magnified in their reality. She is sweet, she is accommodating, she is beautiful, and she will spend his life trying to please him. She is white bread, nourishing and good, but Ellen is like chocolate cake, bad for you but irresistible. (I'm eating right now, hence the cheesy food analogies).

Newland and Ellen begin to explore their relationship in a passionate but unphysical way. "A stolen kiss isn't what I want," he pleads with her. "He had known the love that is fed on caresses and feeds them; but this passion that was closer than his bones was not to be superficially satisfied." I think that is the real tragedy of the story. So many stories of unfaithfulness result from boredom, or lust, or stupidity. But Newland has found a spirit that is the same as his, and he can't have her. I almost burst into tears at this line - "Suddenly he felt something stiff and cold on his lashes, and perceived that he had been crying, and that the wind had frozen his tears." For some reason, the image of this somewhat reserved and self-possessed, albeit susceptible to forbidden emotions, vulnerable and crying just breaks my heart.

Shortly after that, the story skips years ahead to Newland in his old age. May has passed away - he has made no attempt to find Ellen. His son is marrying Fanny Beaufort, the daughter of a union that was a huge scandal in Newland's day, but which no one thinks twice about now. His son, Dallas, seems to understand instinctively everything about his parents' marriage and how Newland feels about Ellen, and he takes it all in stride. He reveals to Newland that his mother knew how he felt about Ellen the whole time. In some ways it makes me like her a little better - she has her one nasty moment, throwing a send-off party for Ellen and throwing the whole situation in both Ellen and Newland's faces with grace and a sweet smile. He also says that they are to meet with Ellen that afternoon.

And this part is the worst, because Newland has that opportunity to see her again. They are both free, and not so horribly old, and his feelings for her haven't changed. But he sits and starts thinking about the way she has lived and met people and done what she wanted in her freedom, and the way he has followed convention and lived the perfect life he always dreamed of, and how it was always flavorless, and he can't face her. So he turns and walks away.

Part of me wanted to scream, WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? It seems like Newland kicks every fleeting chance he has at happiness out the door with a vengeance. But really, I think it was the only way the story could have ended. I do think that if he had gone through the door, he would have been surprised. I think she would have welcomed him and that maybe their relationship would have a chance at redemption. But I think that the way Newland lived his life had planted him in a different direction, and he could never grow toward Ellen. While he thought he stayed back because of how much she must have changed, really he had just cemented himself in following Society, and even though he knew things were different, he couldn't take that final step. He aligned his life with May's and was used to accepting life with wide, innocent eyes - he didn't want the bloom of life that Ellen would have brought him. And so he died, alone. (He didn't actually die).


I loved this book. It was heart-breaking, but stunningly beautiful. I was correct in thinking that even though it moved slowly at the beginning, it would blossom into something that touched my heart. The book evokes some serious thoughts of what is worth sacrificing. Is a life without "the flower" a life worth living? Probably. But I'd rather not experiment to find out. I strongly recommend it to anyone, regardless of whether or not you usually read classics. It will start slowly, but I think you will love it.

Readability: A bit slow at first, with a few unfamiliar words. However, I think in general anyone could understand it.
Plot: 5 Captivating and heart-breaking.
Characters: 5 Well developed.
Aesthetics/literary merit: 5 I have a writer-crush on Edith Wharton. She is a stunning writer.
Personal response: 5 This is officially in my top five favorite books.
Overall: 5

Oh and also, the end of this book talks about Paris, which makes me nostalgic and even in more in love with it.

While we're on the subject of heart-break, I love this song (like everyone else on the planet right now). I'm actually pretty happy with my life right now, but I love these two heart-breaking things and I think they go well together. You should probably put it on repeat and read the end of this book and cry.


  1. Lorren! This is a perfect review! Really. You said all the things I wanted to say. The ending was terribly disappointing but completely necessary. I kept seeing the page numbers dwindling as Archer set sail for Paris fully knowing Wharton wouldn't let the lovers reunite. The quotation you included about tears is so perfect. It was subtle and almost missed my attention completely; yet, so powerful featuring NEWLAND ARCHER crying. He had accepted his role in society, and perhaps that is where the title most comes into play. He never wants to leave that little bubble of innocence. I'm so glad you enjoyed the work. I loved it so much more than I ever thought possible!

  2. K, didn't read the spoiler section, but your review convinced me. I read House of Mirth a couple years ago for a British lit class and LOVED it, it was beautiful, but I haven't read any other Edith Wharton. Once I get through this crazy week (so tomorrow night) I'm going to find and read this one too.

    Oh, and so right about that song :)

  3. You review sounds so tempting!! But, I didn't care for this novel at all! While the story and setting were interesting (as a matter of fact the movie ranks among one of my favourites), I disliked Wharton's writing style that put me off the whole thing.:-/

    You'll find my review of it here:

  4. @Beth - Thank you! Thanks so much for hosting, this was a really good book to do for a readalong.

    @Allison - I'm glad you're reading it! It is awesome.

    @Risa - I'm sad that you didn't like it! Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors. But we all have different tastes which is why book blogging is as fun as it is. :)

  5. I loved this book, although it was hauntingly sad. I still think about it years later.

    I added you review to the list on the Battle of the Prizes, American Version, Challenge. Sorry I didn't do it sooner, but I just went searching for reviews.

    Thanks for participating! Do you have other Pulitzer or National books reviews to add to the list? Please leave a comment on the Challenge page with links and I will add them to the list.


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