Monday, August 20, 2012

291 (2012 #36). The Age of Innocence
292 (2012 #37). The Innocents

I had not encountered Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence before, so I was intrigued by the opportunity to read it and a new book based on it, The Innocents by Francesca Segal, immediately after.  I was one of 20 people who received copies of each book from the Book Report Network in a contest celebrating the 150th birthday of Edith Wharton, in exchange for my commentary on both books by today.

I was a bit intimidated by the Penguin Classic edition of Wharton’s book.  The lengthy, analytical introduction and the explanatory notes at the end made me feel like I was in high school English class again.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved high school English and did well in it, well enough to place out of all my college English requirements.  However, since then, I’ve tried to keep my reading of fiction purely for pleasure, only researching historical events and people when my interest is piqued.  So, the introduction was a little challenging, and it took me a while to get into the book.

In time, though, I found myself really appreciating Wharton’s subtle humor and commentary on WASP-ish society and upper class rituals of the Gilded Age era of “Old New York.”  Social customs thwart the individual desires of both men and women in this novel.  I can see why it won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize.

(Very interesting, too, that Wharton apparently threaded the symbolism of the Victorian language of flowers in her book, since I just finished another book based on that language for a discussion tomorrow).

In The Innocents, Segal takes Wharton’s story and updates it to an upper middle class Jewish neighborhood in northwest London in the 21st century.    As the fiancée’s cousin who tempts the male protagonist, Ellie Schneider has the name most similar to her inspiration (Ellen Olenska in Wharton’s novel), but the two women differ in many key ways – which means the conclusions of the two books are not at all alike.

The customs and rituals of the Jewish families in Segal’s book were interesting, too.  Most of the time, Segal does a good job explaining them.  However, there are times when a non-Jewish reader might feel like an outsider, when Yiddish or Hebrew terms are not translated, or ceremonies are not described.

Nevertheless, I think Wharton’s fans will like Segal’s book, and I’m glad I read Wharton’s prize-winning classic.  

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[These books were won in the aforementioned contest, in exchange for an honest review.  Both books will be donated to my university library.]

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