You 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?