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#LiteraryWives: The Age of Innocence

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

As always, if you haven’t already please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton! There are definitely spoilers ahead.

Cynthia @ I Love Days
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book

 

age-of-innocence

Edith Wharton’s novel, published in 1920, was the first by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. Her 12th novel, The Age of Innocence was originally serialized and is one of her three novels of New York (The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country are the other two).

It’s New York in the 1870s and Newland Archer is about to marry sweet, young May Welland. According to both of their families, this is a perfect match, further uniting them all. But then May’s disgraced cousin Ellen returns to the city after a failed marriage to a Polish count. The beautiful, willful and independent Countess Olenska makes Newland feel all kinds of new feelings and he has to choose between a conventional, easy but passionless marriage to May or an alluring and forbidden love affair with Ellen that would see them both shunned from the world they know.

My Thoughts

This was the second time I read The Age of Innocence. The first time I gave it five stars and was no doubt swept up in the romance and setting of it all. I felt a little differently about it this time!

I still really liked it – although it was hard to really get into it with all the other noise in the world. BUT I kind of hated that our main character was male. Go ahead, roll your eyes, get it out of your system. I had a hard time not rolling my eyes every time Newland refers to the women in his life, especially May. His poor sister Janey is getting to that time in life when it’s not really appropriate for her to wear a traditional wedding gown, it’s tiresome to have to provide May with the thoughts she should have about anything, he can’t read poetry out loud anymore because May always asks so many questions etc. 

And it was hard to sympathize completely with his conundrum: marry May or run away with Ellen because he was a man in his time. A wealthy man! He could have easily run away with Ellen and lived another life and there would have been few consequences beyond being shunned by society he wasn’t that attached to anyway. Poor May would have been jilted and that would have impacted her chances at a ‘good’ marriage. And of course Ellen would have forever been a scarlet woman. 

Newland does a lot of supposing about May, what kind of woman she is, what she thinks and feels but he doesn’t spend a lot of time actually talking to her. 

“There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.” 

Ultimately he does the right thing and stays with May and I did appreciate that. I kind of like when characters do the so-called right thing rather than the thing that feels good and exciting. I like that he stayed with May, that he accepted that and made a good life out of the choice he felt he had to make. I even kind of like that when he had another chance at a life with Ellen he didn’t take it! 

What has happened to my romantic tendencies??

What does the book say about being a wife?

This book has a lot to say about how to be a good wife but it’s never from the perspective of any actual wives. In the end, the battle is between the rewards of being a good and faithful wife whose husband thinks you’re dull and those of doing what you want and not settling for a husband who treats you terribly even if it means giving up the kind of lifestyle most only dream of. 

When Newland is still trying to make a case to the families for the Countess Olenska not to go back to her husband, the family’s matriarch asks if he knows what he’s asking her to give up?

“But on the material side, Mr Archer, if one may stoop to consider such things; do you know what she is giving up? Those roses there on the sofa – acres like them, under glass and in the open, in his matchless terraced gardens at Nice! Jewels – historic pearls; the Sobieski emeralds – sables – but she cares nothing for these. Art and beauty, those she does care for, she lives for, as I always have; and those also surrounded her. Pictures, priceless furniture, music, brilliant conversation. […] And she had it all; and the homage of the greatest. […] Are these things nothing? And the remorse of an adoring husband?” 

The society that they live in makes it almost impossible for a marriage to be a true partnership, to allow for two people to fall honestly in love. They’re not allowed to be alone, they have to marry within a certain set of families, everything is in service to appearances. 

“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”

Newland, May and Ellen are all victims of a society that would rather see them miserable than live unconventional lives.

Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! And come back in March when we’ll discuss Every Note Played by Lisa Genova. 

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#LiteraryWives: Alternate Side

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

As always, if you haven’t already please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen! There are definitely spoilers ahead.

Cynthia @ I Love Days
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book

alternate side

Nora and Charlie Nolan have been married for a long time. They live in a beautiful house on a dead-end block in New York City, the kind of block where the residents all know one another and what’s going on with them. Their twins are about to graduate from college and it’s just Charlie and Nora living in this big house with their old dog, Homer, and assistance running the home from the housekeeper, Charity, and occasional handyman, Ricky.

Things are humming along for the most part but Charlie wants to eventually leave the City and Nora can’t imagine ever living anywhere else. One day, when coming back from a run, Nora witnesses something happening on the block that becomes the thread that unravels everything.

My Thoughts

This is definitely more of what one might call a character-driven novel but I really like it. Sometimes in books like this, it can feel like it takes a while to get to the point but I didn’t feel that way with this one. I thought Quindlen did an excellent job with the pacing of the story, giving readers enough to stay on to find out what’s going to happen.

Alternate Side had a lot of layers to it as well. I appreciated the kind of quiet take on racism, classism, marriage, feminism, and motherhood. For a book that’s less than 300 pages, Quindlen sure packed a lot in. Even the peripheral characters felt fully formed and actually brought something to the table, versus being pawns to move the story along.

What does the book say about being a wife?

I felt like Alternate Side was saying that it’s easy to let a lifetime of little things be all that keeps you together. When you’re first married, you have the rush of being newly married, of having proclaimed to all your family and friends that you love each other. And then maybe you add kids, your work gets more challenging, you have a house to look after, chores to get done, maybe you add a pet or two. Early on, I think you are conscious of being a team; to survive kids and life, you have to work together.

But then things become more rote, more everyday and you slip into a rhythm that’s hard to shake. Something like what happens to the handyman has to shake you out of your rhythm, makes you take a hard look at your partner, whether or not you’re on the same page, if you want the same things, and crucially, if you want to keep going together.

Nora is of the generation that very much sees men as additional children they have to look after. Being his wife means making his life more comfortable, going to the dinner parties and work events as his plus-one, talking him out of the things that she thinks he’s not that serious about, like moving out of the City.

“But ultimately, arranging things for someone is not the same as loving him. It’s work, not devotion.” (p. 253)

Nora has a group of girlfriends that she meets for lunch and they always talk about marriage and one friend, Jenny, has never been married. And then she meets someone and he’s not at all what anyone would have assumed she’d go for (she’s an academic and he’s a cabinet maker who has been caring for a sourdough starter for a decade) but he makes her happy and they get married. At the same time, Nora’s marriage is ending and it strikes her how crazy it is that most of us get married when we’re young and don’t yet know anything:

“You had to really, really, really like being with someone. Yet somehow that was a decision they were all expected to make when they were too young to know very much. They were expected to make all the important decisions then: what to do, where to live, who to live with. But anyone could tell you, looking at the setup dispassionately, that most people would be incapable of making good choices if they had to make that many choices at the same time, at that particular time of their lives.” (p. 249)

In the end, Alternate Side isn’t about big life events. It’s about how the little things add up to make a life, how those every day things are the ones that grate and grind and change the path you thought you were on.

“Nora had been married to Charlie without seeing him for a long time. She realized that they all assumed that if their marriages ended, it would be with a big bang: the other woman, the hidden debts. […] The truth was that some of their marriages were like balloons: a few went suddenly pop, but more often than not the air slowly leaked out until lit was a sad, wrinkled little thing with no lift to it anymore.” (p. 253)

For Nora, being a wife is one of her many roles and one that doesn’t quite fit anymore. Nora and Charlie make the decision to end their marriage quietly and mutually. Free of the burden of expectations the other has for them, of how they each see the other, they are able to explore different endings.

Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! And come back in December when we’ll discuss The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I will be curious what I think about this one – the last time I read it, I gave it 5 stars.