Coming of Age – A Book Review

May 4, 2009

[Dear readers: I'm still fumbling with writing a "book review." I can't help but tell my whole life story in a review. I'd love to hear your ideas. On that note, I'll begin.]

I like to think of myself as relatively well-read.

In high school, I had to read most books required for high school students to read.  Some that my classes passed over, I read when my sister or my brother was required to read them so I could be a good older sibling and help them with their homework.

After high school, I went to a state university somewhere in the middle of America and graduated with a degree in English Language and Literature.  For my degree, I was required to take one class in literature from the pre-1600s.  I chose an in-depth course on the Canterbury Tales and it was one of the best decisions I made in my academic career.  I had to take two classes focusing on books from the 1600s to the 1830s.  I had some other requirements too but I’m already too far off topic to get into what I read for my classes focused on (theater and the) prison system or the school system.   And, I bet you can guess the required reading for my class entitled, “The Bible as Literature” with Ralph Williams.

After college, I did what every other English major does who doesn’t know what she wants to do and whose parents are regretting her decision not to be a business major or a doctor – I went to law school.

– read. like. support. –

$100K+ Law Jobs

– read. like. support. –

In law school, I spent my days with a bookbag that seemed to weigh 90 pounds.  Every time my back ached or I was thrown off-balance onto my neighbor’s lap on public transportation, I reminded myself than the books I carried – or the excerpts of what could’ve been many more pounds of caselaw – abolished slavery, allowed women to vote, created the rules for search and seizure, and defined the building blocks for modern businesses such as contracts, property laws, and the tax code.  Again, however, I’ve told you much more than you need to know.  Especially because my point was to tell you that despite reading and digesting these monumental cases – of which there seemed to be endless pages and needs for outlines – I managed to read a few more books for pleasure, not wanting to lose my edge of “relatively well-read.”

By early 2009, I managed to accumulate around 200 books on my “read” shelf on Goodreads.

So, how did it come to pass that I never read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton – or even heard of it, for that matter – until I saw an episode of Gossip Girl entitled, “The Age of Dissonance?”  FN1.  Gossip Girl - Gossip Girl, Season 2 - The Age of Dissonance

Yes, I even managed to miss this book in spite of Martin Scorsese’s adaptation with Winona Rider, Daniel Day Lewis, and Michelle Pfeiffer.  True, period pieces are not very en vogue for seventh graders, which I happened to be in 1993, but anyone following Scorsese’s career knows that this film is often considered one of his greats.

Earlier this year, I (finally!) had the pleasure to read Edith Wharton’s masterpiece.  And, for any one of you who have not yet read the book, I’d recommend that you add it to your “to-read” shelf immediately.

For those who are Philistines like me and have not yet read the book, I’ll send you to the prolific plot summaries found on the ‘net.

Set in a time period where true emotions were rarely articulated, Wharton’s narrative accurately expresses one of the most intimate struggles that a person faces in life: namely, the conflict between what one is “supposed to do” and what one “desires to do.”

In this New York Times review of the film, Francine Prose describes Wharton’s conflict well:


DVD from Amazon

THE FILM SENDS US BACK TO the novel, to Edith Wharton’s other fiction, and to her life and letters for clues to explain why a woman who lived from 1862 to 1937 was so engaged in — and so perceptive about — subjects that still engage us: the conflict between duty and freedom, the moral choices of adult life. We can read her books for their view of the ways in which society changes and yet stays the same, fiercely maintaining the status quo, regardless of human cost. The impossibility of following one’s heart beyond the brick-wall barriers of social custom and class is central to much of her work, and may strike a responsive chord in modern readers who have come to feel walled in by social conservatism — and by the ways that economic recession tends to limit one’s options.

As stated above, I applied to law school based on the expectations of my parents (see: my law school personal statement).  Therefore, the theme of feeling compelled to follow status quo sat well with this first-born, both in career and in love.  If the chords of following the status quo of one’s kin do not reverberate with readers, perhaps these readers will understand confinement better in today’s economic environment.

By now, I’ll assume that anyone who has read this far in my rambles has already read the book (I mean, I gave you enough time…). I’m hesitant to write explicit plot spoilers but I’d like to stop sucking up to dead-Edith Wharton as well.

Without further ado, let me tell you why this novel stood out in the repertoire of human versus society-based literature: she kicks our ass.

Through Newland Archer’s internal conflict, Wharton portrays the narcissism involved with this type of internal struggle, especially if one dwells on it.  The foil between Newland Archer’s romantic tinkering between what could be and what is and the distinct, but equally decisive, paths of May Welland and Countess Ellen Olenska resembles a judgment call on the part of the author.  In other words, the novel becomes less about whether to follow one’s heart or to conform to one’s station.  The novel turns into a reflection on the process by which one reaches his or her decision.  Wharton’s opinion:  Fucking make up your mind already, Jackass.

FN1. What makes my introduction even more amazing is that, according to Gossip Girl author and creator Cecily von Ziegesar, the entire series was inspired by “The Age of Innocence.” “The Age of Dissonance” only aired earlier this year (2009).

(Wait, did I really state that it’s amazing that I missed this Pulitzer prize winning book – the first Pulitzer prize for literature awarded to a woman – because it inspired a series of young adult novels later turned into CW-hit by the creator of the O.C. with babes like Blake Lively and Leighton Meester and hunky actors like Penn Badgley and Chace Crawford?  Forget all the credentials I spewed above.  There’s obviously something wrong with me.  It’s not amazing.  It’s unsettling.)

The one consolation I have for waiting this long is that I found myself laughing out loud at the novel’s “innocent” description of the legal profession, which inspired me to write this article.

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