The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
When I was a teenager, Penguin produced a range of classics for a pound a book. I’m not sure how mid-90s money translates across the Atlantic, but for this reader who’d only very recently discovered the joy of bookshops it was a revelation.
All of a sudden I went from being able to afford a book a month to what felt like an unlimited supply of new reading material. No matter that some of the classics I bought were as inaccessible to a teenage girl as A Clockwork Orange is to most human beings, I suddenly had the ability to visit a bookshop and buy more than one book. I browsed, I bought, I read.
Among these purchases was The Age of Innocence. If bookshops inspired my love of reading, it’s this book that opened my eyes to the possibilities of what books can hold. This book grabbed me, shook me, chewed me up and spat me out the other side, leaving an exhausted woman wondering what I could possibly read next that could ensnare me in such a way.
All this in what many misinterpret as being just another society love story.
In some ways that interpretation is correct. The main strand of the book is Boy Meets Girl, but the setting of that introduction (I don’t just mean 1870s New York) and the subtle storytelling are what make it so much more than a story of love versus responsibility. After all, this was the first Pulitzer Prize-winning book by a woman.
The Age of Innocence is the book I recommend and/or gift the most, and I’m currently re-reading it for a book club. For some, like teenage me, I fully expect them to comment on the love story, but I’m also looking forward to the other aspects they question: the freedom, or otherwise, of the different women; the rules that constrict our hero’s choices; and maybe even the impact today’s societal conventions have on our own lives – we’re technically more free than the characters in the book, but how much do we bind ourselves in our attempts to fit in?
Edith Wharton writes with intelligence and humour, encouraging her readers to question the sense of that world and its hypocrisies, and while her focus might have been a few centuries ago The Age of Innocence is as relevant now as it was then.
Erica Jones is a bookshop blogger, owned by a rescue cat called Dolly.