Disappointing myself (with The Age of Innocence)

Age of InnocenceYou know when there’s a book that you really assume you’re going to love, and you end up not loving it? Everybody you know who usually shares your taste are big fans; the author seems right up your street, but… it doesn’t work. And it’s not just the disappointment of reading a book that doesn’t hit home – it’s the added disappointment in yourself, for somehow not measuring up to your own expectations.

I’ve given the game away in the post title. It’s The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

For those who don’t know, The Age of Innocence is about 1870s upper-class New York (published in 1920, in four serialised parts, and then as a novel) and particularly about Newland Archer, his fiancée May, and the mysterious woman (Ellen Olenska) who catches his eye. It’s basically your classic love triangle, surrounded by the details and mores of society.

The positives: there are occasional lines that I loved, where Wharton lets her slightly barbed wit or satire come through. This one was a joy, about an opera:

She sang, of course, “M’ama!” and not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.

Love it. That’s in the first few pages of the novel, and gave me hope – but I found that we lost that, and instead were treated to the minutiae of 1870s etiquette and the minutiae of Newland Archer’s ummings and ahhings. Now, the etiquette thing I could cope with. If Wharton had been writing about the 1920s, I’d probably have loved it. But so much of The Age of Innocence seems to be implicitly drawing a distinction between the 1870s and the 1920s of Wharton’s original audience that the 2010s are out of kilter with whatever framework she is building and conclusions she is coming to.

As for Newland Archer, well…

This was a book group choice, and a few people commented on the fact that he’s not a very nice person. He’s certainly unkind, selfish, and hypocritical – not the ‘charming, tactful, enlightened’ that my edition’s blurb claims; is it being sarcastic? – but none of that matters. A great book can be written about an unpleasant person. I could read about Lady Catherine de Burgh for days. The characters in The Age of Innocence committed a far worse crime in my eyes. I found them all boring.

If the crux (or a crux – can you have more than one crux?) of a novel is whether a man chooses the woman he loves with the messy past or the woman he likes and has Society’s approval, then it’s essential that the reader cares. And millions of readers obviously have cared. This book is a classic, after all, and I know plenty of people who love it. But… I just wasn’t bothered. I didn’t want to spend any time reading about these people. I couldn’t even tell the difference between most of the supporting cast, who lived in one identical rarefied building after another.

Perhaps all this would have been saved if I’d been able to get along with Wharton’s writing. This isn’t my first Wharton – I read Ethan Frome years ago – but I don’t remember what I thought of that. There’s something in her style that I find curiously obfuscatory. It was a bit like looking at something through translucent plastic, or trying to follow an autocue that was moving too fast. I couldn’t connect.

Frustratingly, I couldn’t work out why the style didn’t work for me. Clearly Wharton is a good writer. She isn’t even the Henry James-esque ‘good’ writer whose sentences are so laboured down with clauses that they’re unreadable. And it’s certainly not anything like being the wrong age or the wrong nationality, or any of those slightly silly reasons that people sometimes come up with. I didn’t hate it, but I certainly didn’t enjoy it. I confess to being disappointed with myself.

Oh well. Chalk this one up to experience, I suppose, and a recognition that sharing 90% of a person’s taste won’t account for the other 10%.

Which books have you found leave you cold when you were expecting to love them?


21 thoughts on “Disappointing myself (with The Age of Innocence)

  • February 23, 2016 at 10:08 pm

    Hmmm, I love this book, but maybe my impressions were colored by having seen the movie first. I didn’t see Newland Archer as a bad person, maybe just weak one who feels he has to follow through on his promises. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should try watching it and see if it changes your impression of the book. I also remember the barbed social commentary as continuing throughout the book, but it’s been a few years since I read it.

    • February 24, 2016 at 12:41 am

      I will certainly keep an open mind with the film! Thanks for recommending it – I know Rachel/Book Snob is a fan too.

  • February 23, 2016 at 10:52 pm

    Oddly enough, I’ve struggled with my limited attempts to read Wharton and I can’t put my finger on why. It *is* disappointing when a book doesn’t live up to your expectations – better luck next read!

    • February 24, 2016 at 12:42 am

      Glad it’s not just me! I wish I’d had The Old Maid with me for the 1924 Club. I suppose I can still read it, of course ;)

  • February 23, 2016 at 10:57 pm

    Have you tried “The Custom of the Country?” I’m evangelical about it – the drollest, sharpest, most brutal portrait of the era. Imagine Kim Kardashian transplanted into Wharton’s world… that’s about the sum of the story.

    • February 24, 2016 at 12:42 am

      I haven’t, but it was given to me in a Secret Santa – and that description sounds wonderful and bizarre!

  • February 24, 2016 at 3:09 am

    Aw! I haven’t read The Age of Innocence, but it’s been on my docket for a while. I surprised myself by loving Edith Wharton’s unfinished novel The Buccaneers. Even though it’s unfinished, I was just shocked at how much I got on with her writing (I had tarred her with the same brush as Henry James, totally unfair to her). But maybe I’ll try Ethan Frome first instead? Or House of Mirth? In case this one maybe is not her best?

  • February 24, 2016 at 7:04 am

    I have thought I would love Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I did not think it deserves the hype surrounding the book. I liked the read, but never quite loved it. The book does not stick by me a few months after reading it. Though I liked the book then, now when I ruminate my thoughts I like it lesser and lesser. And I am unable to point out the reason either- the characterization was good, the writing likeable and the flow effortless. Perhaps it just isnt my cup of tea.

  • February 24, 2016 at 9:09 am

    Both The Alchemist – everyone talks about it being so profound but I found it more obvious than essential. I kept waiting for some part that would astound me, but no.

    Also Till We Have Faces – I had so many people recommend that and say they loved it. But when I came back after reading it and asked them *why* they loved it, they couldn’t explain. So frustrating. It seemed needlessly confusing. Oh and the way he merged Greek mythology with a Germanic setting just didn’t work for me. It still gets recommended to me quite regularly.

  • February 24, 2016 at 10:14 am

    I read this ages ago and can’t remember exactly what I thought, but I certainly didn’t hate it. Then I watched the film the other day and thought it was brilliant. Newland certainly doesn’t come across as bad, just deeply confused and torn and yes, probably weak. Maybe if you saw it you might enjoy it too!

  • February 24, 2016 at 10:56 am

    I read this book after watching the film and the film left a much bigger impression on me. It was beautiful and I do recommend it. I did however read a short story of Wharton’s which I loved and have been meaning to try some of her other work. The Catcher in the Rye was one of those books all my friends loved and I didn’t – I still can’t figure out why.

  • February 24, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    That is too bad you didn’t like this more. I tried to read it once and it just never grabbed me… I wasn’t that far into it, so I suppose it could have turned around if I stuck with it. Hopefully your next read will work for you better!

  • February 24, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    I read ‘The Innocents’ by Francesca Segal a few years ago and was infuriated by it – it’s an update of the Age of Innocence and I had the same issues with it. I rarely like adultery stories and I just couldn’t sympathise with Newland. Nobody forced him into his choices and his self-pity irritated me. Gah. Glad someone else agrees.

  • February 24, 2016 at 2:54 pm

    Too many to mention! The Book Thief and A Little Life are the two that pop to mind most readily.

  • February 24, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    I agree with the comment above that you should try The Custom of the Country. My favorite of Wharton’s novels.

  • February 24, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    This was my first Wharton also, and it left me underwhelmed. However, I ended up reading House of Mirth for a book group and could not put it down, it’s just brilliant and tragic. I went on to read Ethan Frome which is also beautiful and tragic, as most of her books are. They are by far my two favorites by Wharton but I also loved The Glimpses of the Moon. Her short stories are also wonderful. She was a master of irony — for a quick read, I highly recommend Roman Fever. I hope you don’t give up on Edith Wharton because she’s really worth it.

  • February 24, 2016 at 5:26 pm

    Trollope! I try him periodically and have not been able to get through one. I so wish I loved him because there are so many. I like all of Wharton except Custom of the Country. I found Undine Spragg unbearable. I would recommend Wharton’s Summer. The first time I read Wharton I was in college. I happened to be reading her on the train, and a woman, much older than I, noticed what I was read and asked, with a lot of doubt in her voice, if I really liked it. Perhaps she’s one of those either you love her or you don’t authors?

  • February 25, 2016 at 10:31 am

    Never read it but suspect it’s one of those rare cases of the movie being better than the book. Have you see it?

  • February 27, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    I really like Wharton (and James) but I can’t stand Dickens, all that blinking archness drives me demented and SO UNFUNNY. So, there.

    • February 29, 2016 at 11:56 pm

      Oh agreed! And unbearably heavy-handed! No thank you.

  • March 1, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    Expectations can play so much into our reading, can’t they? It feels frustrating not to know WHY we connect or dislike certain books when there is no obvious explanation. I discovered this year that Enid Bagnold makes me feel like I have a brain bleed – absolutely no idea why.

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