Perhaps my introverted nature is the reason that I so enjoy books where people are polite on the surface but all full of emotions underneath. I also like stories where peoples desires are constantly being repressed by societal constraints. I read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and loved it even though the end is incredibly depressing. The Age on Innocence has similar themes but without the dark ending.
Newland Archer is a young gentleman from one of the best families in New York society in the late 19th century. He is engaged to the equally well-bred May Welland. He’s extremely happy with how his life is going until he meets his wife’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska who has fled a bad marriage in Europe (scandalous!). Having spent a great deal of her life in Europe, Ellen is unfamiliar with New York Society many social rules and is unlike any woman Newland has ever met. He begins to question the institutions and rules he once thought were so important and becomes more and more determined to be with Countess Olenska.
In lesser hands, this book would simply be a couple hundred pages of back and forth between two people saying “But I WANT to,” and “But we CAN’T,” However Wharton is a master of unrequited desire. The interactions between Ellen and Newland are minimal but each one is full of meaning. Additionally, the character of May Welland is more than just a silly society girl to be a foil for the two lovers. This book is a wonderful little slice of New York Society in the 1870s and the unrequited love it spawned.