Monday, August 27, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields

Edith Wharton is a Pulitzer prize winning early twentieth century American novelist known for such major works as Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and The Age of Innocence. She also wrote short stories and poetry. I can’t claim much familiarity with Wharton’s writing. I read The House of Mirth so many years ago I can’t remember much of anything about it. I read Ethan Frome even farther back. I remember only thinking it one of the bleakest books I’d ever read. Still, it was very moving and I do want to read it again some day.

At any rate, a novel has just been released based on Edith Wharton’s life–The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields. Let’s see--historical fiction, based on a novelist’s life, female friendship, romance, Paris–of course I had to read it! It focuses in on the years of greatest upheaval in Wharton’s life. It begins in 1907. After the publication of The House of Mirth, Edith’s reputation as a writer is taking off. She has come to Paris to be with other artists and literary giants and because it is Paris. She is accompanied by her household staff which includes her long-time secretary, Anna Bahlmann. Anna is Wharton’s closest friend. Teddy Wharton, Edith’s husband, is also in Paris, but reluctantly.

Edith and Teddy have a passionless marriage. She realizes that she made a mistake in choosing him, but divorce is out of the question. While Teddy remains deeply devoted to Edith, she can no longer abide his presence. He is not her intellectual equal and the gulf between them has grown increasingly irksome to Edith. Worse, Teddy suffers from depression and Edith has no patience for his illness. More and more, the task of caring for him falls to Anna.

Attending various social events in Paris, Edith comes into contact with someone new–William Morton Fullerton. He is an American like herself, a correspondent for the London Times in Paris. He is also exceptionally handsome and charming. Edith is surprised and flattered to find herself pursued. Although her friends hint that Fullerton has a "reputation," she refuses to heed the warnings. She wants to understand what other women feel when they talk about love, about desire. And so, the game begins.

The story isn’t solely Edith’s. It’s also Anna’s. There are many parallels between the two women but it is their differences that make the friendship so strong. Edith is a powerful force. Her selfishness is grating. The fact that she recognizes it doesn’t let her off the hook. Nor does the fact that she can see some of her mother’s awfulness in her own actions and is disturbed by it. Edith makes her own choices. Some of her behavior, as she changes from pursued to pursuer, is cringeworthy, but her desperation in love is so recognizable and very human. And so, the sensible, kind balance that Anna provides gives the book the heart it needs. Anna is every bit as intelligent as Edith but more, she is wise and she is selfless. It is Anna’s happiness I ended up rooting for.

It’s always fun to read about great writers, to imagine what was going on in their lives as they composed their masterpieces. Based on real letters and diary entries, The Age of Desire allows a glimpse into the minds and hearts of two complicated women. And it makes me want to read/re-read Edith Wharton’s books.