Newland Archer is a young man in the prime of his life. He’s a member of the upper echelon of New York society and he’s about to be married to May, the most beautiful and sought-after girl of the season. On the same night that their betrothal is announced, he meets her cousin, Ellen Olenska. And so it begins.
The Archers and all the other families in New York society live by strict codes. Nothing is said outright, but they all understand each other: everything they say has a hidden meaning and everyone follows their codes so religiously that the hidden meanings are clear. But some things can never even be hinted at – anything too unpleasant must be put aside. As the narrator describes early in the book during a conversation between Archer and his mother: “it was against all the rules of their code that the mother and son should ever allude to what was uppermost in their thoughts.” Archer’s betrothed, May, follows these codes completely – she is the “perfect” woman. But he begins to see that there may not be anything else at all underneath her perfect exterior.
Archer feels different from his fellow men, and he wants to push back against these strict rules of behavior. As his relationship with Ellen develops, he feels both more desirous of breaking free and more hemmed in and unable to escape than ever before. His life is inevitable and he feels unable to act according to his own free will. His feeble attempts continue to fall short.
Archer and Ellen meet in society and catch spare moments alone in hallways or Opera boxes. They fall in love in an innocent way and neither sees it happening. But to the reader it feels so real. In one scene, when they are seeing each other after a separation, Archer is struck anew by everything that Ellen is. He says to her “Each time you happen to me all over again.” This is what love feels like. To capture that in a novel is what makes reading such a pleasure. And this novel is a pleasure, indeed.