Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields — 368 pgs

This novel opens with scenes of the livelihood and revelry of Paris during Edith Wharton’s heydey. Edith, in her early forties, is married to Teddy Wharton, a match that has proved disastrous and totally devoid of passion. While all of France loves her for her brilliant new work, The House of Mirth, and considers her the height of modern femininity, there’s one in particular who intrigues her with his elegance and dapper presence. When that handsome face appears again and again, she discovers that this man, Morton Fullerton, has set his designs upon her as if she was a young and attractive coquette. At first Edith is flattered and no more, but soon Fullerton is pursuing her with ferocity. Rumors abound that Fullerton is a cad and a bounder, but Edith cannot see him without seeing the sensuality that he offers her. But his primal objectives have a price that Edith isn’t willing to part with easily, and as the rumors fly, Edith begins to alienate her one true companion as well as her husband. Behind all this romantic frenzy lies a secret that Fullerton will not disclose and that will undo the very fabric of Edith’s life. In The Age of Desire, Jennie Fields reimagines those frenetic years of Edith Wharton’s life with a careful and passionate hand, leaving the reader hungering for more of the inside details while also leaving them fretful of what they will eventually discover.

Having read Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth, I know from personal experience that Edith Wharton was indeed a prolific and incredible author, but I knew little about her personal life or the life of her indispensable secretary, Anna Bahlmann. This novel was based on historical record, but had a life and zest of its own that compelled me to devour the book greedily. It was as if Edith was a woman frozen, who could only be thawed by the hand of one man, and unfortunately for her, that man was not her husband. Fields juxtaposes Edith’s strength and formidable character with her rising desire for a man who is clearly toying with her. She hasn’t the foresight to see that she is not his center, as he is hers.

Fullerton is a character whom I grew to love and hate at the same time. The gift of frank and raw sexuality that he imparts to Edith was invaluable, but at heart he was a womanizer with specific tastes. Edith was only one morsel on his plate, but she didn’t see this. He was a very sensual man, and it was hard for me not to connect with that aspect of his character, but he was also in many ways a derelict and a loathsome creature. Fullerton ran hot and cold to Edith’s consistency. He was aware of what he was doing yet couldn’t stop himself. I grew agitated reading about him, for he could be astonishingly cold but also maddeningly charming.

One of the foremost aspects of this book was the focus that Fields took on Anna Bahlmann’s life. She was with Edith from the time she was just a child, and grew to love her as a mother, sister and friend. Often, this meant that she put up with the childish demands that Edith placed on her while she was dangerously flailing with Fullerton. Anna was patient and long-suffering, and at times I grew very angry at Edith when she became hostile and punitive toward the only friend that was a constant in her life. Anna was completely consumed with being Edith’s helpmeet and partner. She had other opportunities, but chose to be in turns loved and banished by Edith as her moods fluctuated.

Teddy was the last piece of this puzzle. Overly and overtly fond of Anna, he played with the desire of wanting Edith to be true and steadfast to him and taking Anna as a poor second when Edith would frequently abandon him. I had an instant dislike of Teddy. What is obvious as a modern reader is that he was bipolar, but it wasn’t this that made me dislike him. It was his constant need of attention and his wheedling sorrow when he was not accommodated that kept me from connecting any positive emotion to him at all. At times very unpredictable and always needing comfort, Teddy was like a child, and it was easy to see why Edith preferred to be where her husband was not.

In many ways this book was very seductive and gratifying, but it also felt like walking through a minefield of intrepid danger and coy traps. Picking it up again and again, I felt completely immersed in Field’s world, where the outcome was not certain and everything was tense and fluid. Even readers who know nothing of Wharton and her work would have no trouble being consumed by this story, and though it was a delectable read, it was also bittersweet. A very moving look at one of the greatest known writers in the prime of her life. Highly recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

19 comments:

Mary (Bookfan) said...

Wow, Heather, fantastic review! I'll add it to my TBR list.

Harvee Lau said...

Always interesting to read about a famous author's life, even though this one is fictionalized. Great review.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I feel embarrassed to say I haven't even read any Edith Wharton!

Brooke said...

I want to read this so bad!! Awesome review!

bermudaonion said...

This sounds fascinating. I bet my mom would love it!

Audra said...

YES -- you captured this book perfectly. I railed while reading this -- I found Edith and Fullerton so aggravating -- but at the end, oh, I was just mesmerized. I really felt like I knew every one of Fields' characters (well, maybe not Anna, but everyone else) and this book gets mad props for evoking such strong emotions in me.

Ti said...

I love being consumed by a book!

Beth F said...

Wow. You make a compelling argument for putting this one on my must-read list.

Suko said...

This sounds like a book I'd devour greedily as well. Excellent, exciting, and enticing review! You've piqued my interest in this one!

Suko said...

(I am not sure what I did to the comments I tried to add to this post, so I am writing some again. Please delete this if my previous comment went through so I don't repeat myself.)

This sounds like a book I'd greedily devour as well. Excellent, exciting, enticing review! You've piqued my interest in this one.

Literary Feline said...

What an insightful review! You have me wanting to read this one despite my reservations.

softdrink said...

I'm always leery of books that retell a real person's life as a fictionalized story. Although from the little bit I've read about Wharton, it does seem like she'd be an interesting subject!

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I had this one on Auto ship from Amazon and it's sitting here on my desk calling my name now :):) Can't wait to dig in!

Jenners said...

Brilliant review! It sounds like an ambitious historical biography that reads like a romantic thriller (or maybe not romantic but tragic?)

Trisha said...

This sounds like a fun book; I do so like reading about authors.

nomadreader said...

I'm fascinated by novels about real people, and Edith Wharton is a perfect subject! I'll definitely have to pick this one up.

Lisa said...

I love Wharton and am fascinated by her life so this one is definitely going on my wish list. Great review!

Aarti said...

I've never read Wharton but I really want to, and this review makes me want to read it even more! I am always nervous about fictionalized accounts of real people's lives, like mystery novels with Jane Austen as the main character, but this sounds like one I'd really enjoy. Great review, as always :-)

Amy said...

I was thrilled when I saw that you'd reviewed this book primarily because I knew you would tell me whether it was worth reading. It's at the top of my tbr list now!

Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors so I'm embarassed and ashamed to admit I don't anything really about her life. I was a little unsure of this book because of the fiction aspect but the reviews I've read, yours in particular, have reassured me that Edith Wharton's life is well-portrayed. And your description of Fullerton is very interesting!!

A terrific review (of course!)

Post a Comment

 
Blogger Template by Delicious Design Studio