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Book review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Do you know those timeline cleanse you that sometimes pop up on social media? When you’re scrolling through opinion after opinion and suddenly a photograph of a puppy, a cute kid or a eucalyptus tree at sunset?

Sometimes I feel the same way after reading a classic. After following recommendations from friends, social media and booksellers, once in a while I like to pick a classic from my bookshelf and relax into its yellowed pages.

That is what happened when I picked up The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I immediately fell into the rhythm of the language that is quite distinct from what I might read in the latest book by Sally Rooney or Ann Cleeves.

There is also a distinct sense of escapism in reading of a different time, with unfamiliar social conventions.

The Age of Innocence is set in New York in the 1870s, when it seemed that inhabitants of the highest society did little other than avoided scandal.

This was the case for Newland Archer, who is set to marry his innocent and upstanding sweetheart, before he meets her cousin: unorthodox divorcee Ellen Olenska.

Olenska has caused a stir in New York society after leaving her European husband, and Archer is drawn to her courage and exoticism.

This attraction forms the simmering undercurrent in the novel of manners and strict conventions.

Wharton expertly builds the tension between Archer and Olenska, revealing the turmoil that Archer faces as he considers rejecting the only city and community he really knows.

I loved this sense of tension between the two, but also the unexpected and unspoken knowingness of Archer’s wife. It is clear that in each character, much is happening below the surface.

For my next read, I will find it hard to resist a modern novel, but I will certainly return to a classic before long for another literary timeline cleanse.




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