ABCs of 1001 Books: The Age of Innocence

A – I listened to an audiobook version performed by Susie Berneis, and I would highly recommend it. Berneis speaks with the compelling vivacity of an elderly aunt sharing all the best gossip about people you don’t know. Her cadence helped me catch more of the sarcasm and other nuances in Wharton’s style than I think I would have reading it on the page.

B – My dog, Buddy, was my companion as I listened to the audiobook on our late evening and/or morning walks.

C – Newland Archer is the main character of the book. He is engaged to the perfectly proper May Welland, but becomes interested in her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who is in New York fleeing from an unhappy marriage.

DDaniel Day-Lewis may earn you double points as an answer in Scattegories, play a fascinating villain in the movie The Gangs of New York, and be one sexy Mohican, but he was not a good fit for the role of Newland Archer in the movie version. He’s too visibly restrained, serious, and self-possessed to portray the anxious, confused, passionate Archer blundering his way through a forbidden romance.

E – This novel made it onto Entertainment Weekly’s list of the 100 Greatest All-Time Novels back in 2013. I added 40-odd titles from that list to my to-read notebook. I only managed to cross off 4 of them before being gift-challenged with 1001 Books in 2016. So I’m doing the proverbial killing of two birds with one stone here.

F – Many of the characters’ personalities are revealed through how they manage the food at dinner parties. I love it!

G – May and Ellen’s grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott is my favorite character. I don’t know if Wharton even intended her to be sympathetic, as she somewhat represents the hypocritical etiquette and repressiveness of the age, but I love the way she commands respect and makes the family come to her.

H – Another of Wharton’s novels, House of Mirth is a major reason I chose to read this one. I read it in a book club years ago. Honestly I don’t remember any plot details, but I remember enjoying Wharton’s style.

I – What age holds the innocence of the title? Is it the time period age? Or the age of the protagonist at the time of the story’s main plot? Maybe both. I’m glad I read the description in 1001 Books before reading the novel. The editors note that Wharton won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for this work set in the 1870s. Only an author looking back 50 odd years could consider an age “innocent,” with or without irony.

J – Sillerton Jackson is a fun name. Sillerton Jackson. Sillerton Jackson. Like a snake. I pictured him played by Ian McKellen.

K – No one is killed in the course of the novel.

L – Archer and his rich class of friends have a great deal of leisure time. He only pretends to practice law, so it’s amusing when his dabbling accidentally gets him entangled with the Countess Olenska, and later when he fails to use his pretend job when he actually wants to tangle with her.

M – I watched the 1993 movie version a year or so ago, and I would not recommend it. It’s one of those movies that you realize fairly early on must have been based on a book because it’s all about what the characters are not saying and not doing. The type of plot that works better as a book when you can read about the character’s thoughts, pasts, and motivations.

NNewland is a fun first name.

O Olenska is an official sounding name, like she should own a company. Olenska Incorporated. Olenska Fabrics.

P – Michelle Pfeiffer, like Daniel Day-Lewis, was not a good choice for her part in the movie version, Countess Ellen Olenska. Pfeiffer does her best acting with her voice because her eyes are unexpressive and her face too severe. But the movie script doesn’t let her talk much.

Q – When I Googled “discussion questions” for the novel, I found an interesting resource: Spoiler Alert! The questions are meant for after reading.

R – The editors of 1001 Books call the novel’s main plot “a romance doomed by duty.” I’d call it an interior, thwarted romance.

SSparknotes are available for this novel. I referenced them to spell characters’ names.

T – In a later chapter, Wharton uses the phrase “tyrannical trivialities” to describe small items in a room. It caught in my mind because it also seems evocative of the social customs and rituals that are keeping Archer and Olenska from being with one another.

U – I’m feeling too unimaginative to come up with a relevant U word.

V – There’s usually a family with “van” or “van der” in their name in novels about rich people. Wharton doesn’t disappoint with the noble couple Henry and Luisa van der Luyden.

W – I guess a novel set in the late 1800s written by a woman in the early 1900s doesn’t have to be “about” women’s issues, but in a way it can’t help but be. Wharton does a good job of noting the social inequalities between men and women through the male main character’s without being preachy. For example, Archer thinks about the fact that he can conduct his life, especially his romantic life, in ways a woman is not free to do.

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – New York is only important as the setting of this novel because the main conflict is fueled by the social customs of the rich in that city in the 1870s. Wharton doesn’t spend much time describing the physical setting of the city as such, though she does give enlightening descriptions of the insides of the characters’ homes.

Z – I enjoyed reading this period piece in which nothing much happens except in the mind as a break from my usual fare of murder mysteries, zombie stories, and urban fantasies.

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