The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 304 pages.
Read from August 31, 2018 to September 7, 2018.

Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1921, Wharton’s talent has continued to be celebrated with her widely cultivated novels. I first read Wharton when I was in university with The House of Mirth, a book I did not expect to like but became enthralled with the writing style and characters.  While many of Wharton’s books are about unhappy marriages, what continues to make them so popular is Wharton’s fantastic prose as well as an in-depth analysis and commentary on women in society.

Newland Archer, a man living in high-class society New York in the 1870s, has recently become happily engaged. May Welland is well-suited to him and the two of them appear to be the perfect match. However, Newland’s whole foundation is shaken as he makes the acquaintance of May’s curious and beautiful cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen has become the scandalous talk of the town as she has abandoned her very wealthy husband in Europe. In all appearances, she seems to be attempting to walk away from a perfectly matched marriage that has made her a Countess and very wealthy. However, she is willing to sacrifice it all. Newland is entreated by May to be kind to Ellen and to make her feel comfortable in New York as well as advising her legally, that she should not file for divorce or risk losing everything. Headstrong, Ellen does not seem to care for the societal rules in New York and brushes them off as having been raised with European customs. Newland soon learns that Ellen has her own set of ideals and above all else, yearns to be free.

“Women ought to be free – as free as we are,’ he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.”

Without meaning to, Newland falls hard for Ellen as he begins to question his own feelings for May, his own identity, as well as the basis and cultural rules of the society he lives in.

Women wanting to be free, it is that very theme that keeps women, no matter what the ear, coming back to books like this. While things may have changed and have improved for women since Wharton’s era, many men and women, still feel trapped by certain aspects of society and by what is expected of them. Society is so prominent in this book it is the antagonist. It is a character in and of itself. Wharton does a phenomenal job of drawing you into this superficial life and then shatters it for you like she does for Newland’s. Ellen shows Newland the other side of society, what its like when you don’t fit it and once that facade is broken there isn’t any going back. The characters and their inner dilemmas stay with you long after you have finished their story. This is truly a beautiful book and if anything, should be read and marvelled for its prose.

“He had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions. Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room.”

I would recommend this book for anyone who has ever wanted to read Wharton and doesn’t know where to start, prose-lovers, classics-lovers, romance lovers and historical fiction lovers.

 

The Secrets of Evil by Robert Bolaño

“This story is very simple, although it could have been very complicated. Also, it’s incomplete, because stories like this don’t have an ending.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 144 pages.
Read August 31, 2018.

Should books be published posthumously? Books like Go Set A Watchman changed the way fans looked at some of their favourite characters and its publication created a lot of controversy about whether or not it should have been. With this particular book, many Bolaño fans seemed thrilled for another chance to read the last remains of a brilliant writer. I for one, am also glad. Robert Bolaño died in 2013, at the age of fifty, of liver disease. This book is a compilation of stories that were discovered on his computer after he died.  Despite having not read anything by Bolaño beforehand, this book was given as a very thoughtful gift and reminder that even the most talented of writers have a process and that not everything that they write is going to be palatable right away. Knowing these small details about this short story complication allowed me to really appreciate its contents, albeit even unfinished.

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Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño. Source: The Globe and Mail

One of my favourite stories in this compilation is “Colonia Lindavista”. This dream-like narrative involves a young teen writer who often listens to his neighbours having sex. late at night. The narrator is curious about their acts but is more intrigued by the silence that follows. The narrator, like many of us, wonders about the private lives of other people.  Many of the stories are brief and offer a glimpse into the private realm of a character but don’t mistake this brevity for lack of depth, Bolaño’s writing style is more than equipped to deliver a full immersion into a character or story.

I read this novel in one sitting, and I would recommend the same for any readers looking to approach it as if you read the stories individually you may not be able to fully appreciate the stories as some are more ‘finished’ than others. The biggest take away I got from this novel is a reflection on my own writing and enforcing my ‘never-give-up’ attitude. It has also instilled a desire to read more by Bolaño to get a better taste for his work as I sense a genius lurking in between the pages of this short compilation.

 

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

“Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 238 pages.
Read from June 3, 2018 to June 5, 2018.

It is hard to imagine a book considered so scandalous that is was banned for decades; this book, Chopin’s masterpiece, did just that. It was published in 1899 and from then on it has struggled to get away from the banned book realm even though it’s included on most essential feminist reading lists. Chopin is considered one of the author’s that helped in ushering 20th-century American feminism.

This Victorian novel gives a shockingly honest account of identity and infidelity from a woman’s perspective. The protagonist is trapped in a stifling marriage. She has fulfilled the role that society has put in place for her but she realizes that the life she is living is not truly her own. Following her passions, she takes in a lover and begins to make her own choices about what she wants to do with her life in accepting herself as she truly is. She begins to question how women seem to ‘belong’ to men rather than to themselves. She even distances herself from her own children as her insights begin to weigh on her further.

“…but whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself.”

The popularity of this novel comes not from its relevance in the history of feminism but the fact that many women can still relate to the protagonist, to a smaller extent, when it comes to themselves and the choices they have to make as women. Spoilers ahead… The main controversy today comes with how the protagonist ultimately abandons her children, a choice unforgivable to nearly any modern mother. However, taken from within in context, the protagonist was never given a choice about having children. She had to. She was married, there was no birth control and it was expected of her that she would be a mother as that is the only thing of value given to women in that timeframe. The protagonist may be rich, coddled and spoiled but she does love her children. The problem is that she feels she was never given a choice in the matter when it came to becoming their mother.  Does that mean she gets to revoke her responsibilities as a mother? No, but she did anyway. This brutal honesty is what continues to make this novel so scandalous.

Readers have attacked the protagonist for her selfishness and her inability to stand on her own two feet despite the choices she eventually makes. All valid. I don’t disagree but again, what makes the book so potent is that the protagonist’s feelings are not unique, in that women all over the world know to some extent what is or what it might feel like to be in her shoes even if they would never make the same choices. Spoilers ahead… The protagonist’s demise is tragic, as her turmoil is so intense that she believed suicide was the only option for her. Suicide, with its intentions, is not in and of itself a selfish act as sufferers do believe that they are doing the world and their loved ones a favour in making the choice to relieve their suffering. The dynamic between empathy, shock, disbelief or disagreement as well as tragedy, whether for the protagonist, her children or both, are what continue to make this book so exceptional. Accompanied by Chopin’s eloquent writing, it’s no surprise the impact this novel continues to have.

“But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult! The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”