Sunday, February 27, 2011

Review: The Age of Innocence

Title: The Age of Innocence
Author:  Edith WHarton
Published: 1920, D. Appleton & Company
Genre:  Classic
Accolades:  1921 Putlitzer (first Pultizer given to a woman), Modern Library List: 100 Best Books of the Century, Radcliff Publishing Course:  100 Best Novels of the Century and on and on...

I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, but I was wonderfully surprised at the depth of Wharton's wit and her satirical analyze of the society in which she belonged.  With the introduction of our protagonist Newland Archer we are given a "fly on the wall" perspective of what it was like to live and circumvent the twists and turns of high society in New York City during the Gilded Age.  Archer is very much a product of his society and it's rules and is happy to live by them because he understands what happens to those who try to go against the norms of his world.  When Archer meets his fiancee's cousin Ellen Olenska, a woman who is escaping a scandalous marriage, he knows that this women is capable of changing his world for better or worse, but like a moth drawn to the flame - he can't resist.

I found myself thinking about what it would have been like to live in that tightly guarded circle of society and how difficult it was to become a part of it or to escape it.  You would almost have to be born into it to understand the nuances of what is expected - lessons that took a lifetime to learn.  The society wasn't about money because they frowned upon the new money and crassness of the Carnegie's, Frick's, and Rockefeller's. Even those captains of industry could not buy themselves memberships into this elite group.

Wharton's development of her characters is artfully crafted as you realize that the characters that appeared to be weakest and shallow are the strongest and most manipulative. What one would do to preserve appearances due to the code is tragic and heart-felt.  Love is not the number one priority - it is your placement in society.

My Rating: 5 out of 5
Note: I read the 2008 Oxford World's Classic edition

Sunday, February 13, 2011

1989 - Breathing Lessons

I could have guessed before starting Breathing Lessons that the book would involve an ordinary family in Baltimore facing problems in an awkward but genuine way and somehow bumbling through to a moderately happy and definitely realistic end. That description fits every Anne Tyler book I’ve read and it fits this one too.

Unfortunately, this book sticks close to the basic theme without the variations that made the others I’ve read more interesting. For instance, Digging to America applies the basic theme to immigrant families; The Amateur Marriage takes the story further, to a post-divorce phase; The Accidental Tourist takes the show on the road to Paris; and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant turns it around to the children’s perspective.

In contrast, Breathing Lessons is the basic story. It takes place in one day, when Ira and Maggie Moran drive to a funeral and, on the way back, stop to visit their granddaughter in Maggie’s attempt to reconcile their son and former daughter-in-law. In describing the events of the day, Tyler tells the story of the Morans’ courtship, marriage, and children’s lives. She does it with her typical and impressive authenticity.

My only problem was that Tyler’s authenticity seemed too typical. Stripped of the variations that livened up the other books, Breathing Lessons lacked a hook to grab my attention. If this had been the first Anne Tyler book I ever read, I would have loved it. But having read four others already, I felt like I was covering old territory with this one.


Tyler won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons.  It was my Pulitzer choice for the 2011 Battle of the Prizes, American Version challenge.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain

In this 1993 Pulitzer fiction winner, Vietnamese immigrants to Louisiana speak about their experiences in the old world and the new.

It seems very daring (and that is probably why this collection seems to be overlooked) that Butler decided to tell these fifteen stories from the Vietnamese viewpoint, but he's delicate, sensitive and very knowledgeable about that culture, so it works beautifully.

A few of the stories are fragments, and there's one titled "The American Couple" that approaches novella length. My favorite story is "Love", about a jealous husband with a "butterfly" wife and the extremes -- both serious and comedic -- that he will pursue to eliminate his competition.