Age of Desire (Review)

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The Age of Desire
Jennie Fields
368 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
November, 2012
Edith has sex (yes, Edith Wharton!), even though one would be hard-pressed to find the words "sex" and "Wharton" in the same sentence. It's hard to think of her—with the jutting chin and high-necked gowns—as a sexual being; indeed, Wharton never thought of herself as such. Yet this very juxtaposition forms the crux of Jennie Fields's fictional biography.

Edith is trapped in, what is for her, a loveless marriage, although one can't help but pity her aggrieved husband. Teddy Wharton, a kind if simple man, loves his wife with a desperate intensity, yet sex between the two is nonexistant. Having attempted it once in the marriage, a traumatized Edith told Teddy, "never again."

The novel opens in Paris, some 20 years into her marriage, where Edith meets Morton Fullerton, a handsome, charismatic American journalist. The two are deeply attracted to one another. Despite cryptic warnings on the part of friends, Edith finds herself becoming involved with Morton, all the while keeping him at bay, see-sawing back and forth between desire and restraint. Will she, won't she, will she? Until finally on page... But wait! You must read for yourself.

Much of the fun of this novel lies in its voyeuristic pleasures. Readers get a bird's eye view of Wharton's mansion in Lenox, Massachuesetts; Vanderbilt's sumptuous apartment in Paris; never-ending house parties; visits with Henry James and assorted of other luminaries. We are privy to an elegant, privileged life.

The Age of Desire, with its play on the title of The Age of Innocence, seems to suggest that the awakening of Edith's dormant sensuality inspired, even enabled, the author to pen her masterpiece, a novel of passion and forbidden love. The push-pull of desire and restraint is strikingly similar in both life and fiction.

All that said, I recommend this book with reservations. The plot feels sluggish and the writing pedestrian, at times clunky. The use of eyes to convey emotion is silly and excessive—by page 40 I'd counted 8 instances of eyes that flash, glimmer, or laugh—and that doesn't include the eyes of Edith's dogs. A good editor should have kept her eyes on all those eyes.

Still, for all its faults, Jenny Fields's book offers a fascinating insight into the life of Edith Wharton, a woman who broke through societal convention to become one of literature's premier writers—and the first female author to win the Pulitizer Prize.

Book clubs should have a great time parsing Edith's character—is she selfish and self-righteous? Is she opening up, at last, to the fullness of life? Is she overbearing to those who depend on her? Is she a grasping, overly demanding lover? Is she a determined woman facing down societal conventions? Who is Edith Wharton? To make it all the richer, read The Age of Desire in tandem with The Age of Innocence.

See our Reading Guide for The Age of Desire.



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