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I think I’ve mentioned that I am part of a book group called “Masochists and Classics.” My friend Nicki was inspired to start the club by a reading of Moby Dick that I co-organized last summer. The first book club pick was Anna Karenina; since I’d already read that novel, I replaced it with Wuthering Heights. The second pick was The Power Broker, which I had zero interest or motivation to read (which is the point of the exercise, but it didn’t seem “classic” enough to me to warrant the effort), so I skipped that. But the summer selection is a pairing of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and The Golden Bowl by Henry James–choices I’m finally on board with. I’ve read The House of Mirth, but nothing else by either author. I tackled The Age of Innocence first and absolutely loved it.
The novel starts off with a description of an opera–the performance, the opera house, and the audience. It is impossible to tell if the point of view is first or third person; the editorial voice is so strong that it hints at first person, yet there is no obvious source of the judgments being issued on New York society. A few pages in, the novel’s protagonist, Newland Archer, is introduced. I still wasn’t convinced that the book wasn’t in the first person; I waited a few pages further to see if there was another character, seated somewhere across the opera house, giving his or her take on the scene. When I was sure that there wasn’t, and that the narration was in the third person (I was only sure when we got a clear thought from Newland’s point of view), it became even more interesting to see where Newland’s cynicism matched up with the book’s cynicism and where they diverged. Part of the genius of the novel is that, at the outset, it seems as if Newland is at the heart of the regimented, silly conformity being critiqued, but as the story unfurls, it becomes clear that the novel only exists because he sees what the omniscient narrator sees. He is one of the only people in New York society who sees the artifice of his life for what it is; the tension is in the question of outcome: will he be able to escape? Will he act outside of his social parameters? Will society release its grip on him? Read the rest of this entry »