The Age of Desire
Author: Jennie Fields
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication Date: August 12, 2012
Source: Publisher for review
Description from Goodreads:
For fans of The Paris Wife, a sparkling glimpse into the life of Edith Wharton and the scandalous love affair that threatened her closest friendship
They say behind every great man is a woman. Behind Edith Wharton, there was Anna Bahlmann—her governess turned literary secretary, and her mothering, nurturing friend.
When at the age of forty-five, Edith falls passionately in love with a dashing younger journalist, Morton Fullerton, and is at last opened to the world of the sensual, it threatens everything certain in her life but especially her abiding friendship with Anna. As Edith’s marriage crumbles and Anna’s disapproval threatens to shatter their lifelong bond, the women must face the fragility at the heart of all friendships.
Told through the points of view of both women, The Age of Desire takes us on a vivid journey through Wharton’s early Gilded Age world: Paris with its glamorous literary salons and dark secret cafés, the Whartons’ elegant house in Lenox, Massachusetts, and Henry James’s manse in Rye, England.
Edith’s real letters and intimate diary entries are woven throughout the book. The Age of Desire brings to life one of literature’s most beloved writers, whose own story was as complex and nuanced as that of any of the heroines she created.
First Sentence: "He stands at the edge of the salon, and Edith has the uncomfortable feeling he's staring."
Historical fiction remains among my favorite genres, though one I do not visit nearly often enough. Of course, part of my love stems from the gorgeous covers. Look, they can put stunning dresses on the cover and its entirely pertinent to the contents of the book! The Age of Desire follows the life of Edith Wharton during the time of her affair with Morton Fullerton.
I completely abhor infidelity. There's no point to it, not in the modern world anyway. Reading this and thinking about Edith's situation, though, I finally could comprehend why for periods of history affairs were considered to be the truest form of romance. Married at a young age to the older Teddy Wharton, a man intrusted in the outdoors and animals, Edith stagnates, lacking any interesting company aside from that of her secretary, Anna Bahlmann.
Edith has so little interest in Teddy, even in the beginning before she ever met Fullerton. They simply lack common interests, aside from both being fond of dogs (though, perhaps, they would both have kind of liked Breakfast at Tiffany's). She cannot discuss her writing with him, nor does she have any desire to listen to his talk of pigs, horses, and farming. He loves fishing, hunting, and America. Edith blooms in France and England, surrounded by circles of famous authors, speaking with people as cultured and clever as she herself is. Unfortunately, Teddy is desperately depressed in France, where he cannot speak the language and finds the food unpalatable.
Edith meets, rather fortuitously, Morton Fullerton and poet Anna de Noailles at the same time. De Noailles becomes a sort of inspiration for Edith, suggesting a sensual world that Edith has never known of. Edith envies this seductive creature and wonders whether she could ever be so confident. With her marriage to Teddy ever more burdensome and anathema to her, she begins to indulge herself in a flirtation with Morton, who satisfies her intellectually.
Though I don't want to condone cheating on a spouse, in a case like this, I couldn't help rooting for Edith to go for Morton, even though he was obviously not trustworthy, a rake and a neer-do-well. In the novel, at least, Edith never had a satisfying sexual relationship with her husband, no sense of the pleasures of the bedroom. Given how limited options were for women during that time, I desperately wanted her to be able to experience all of life, even though I knew the fallout would undoubtedly be painful.
As much as The Age of Desire is about her affair, it is equally so about the complex relationship between Edith and her secretary, Anna. That really only scratches the surface of what they were to one another. Anna was her first critic, her dearest friend, a truer mother than Edith's actual mother ever was. As such, things do not run smooth between them through the course of the novel. The motherly aspect complicates matters, making Edith less desirous to have her around while she does things she probably shouldn't.
The scope of The Age of Desire is limited, not a full view of Wharton's life by any means, nor does it offer too much insight into her novels (except about how Anna helped in their construction). Fields writes beautifully and offers a glimpse into the life of Edith Wharton. If you enjoy understated, lushly written, moving historical fiction, I recommend The Age of Desire.
Favorite Quote: "Edith has always had a restless mind and body. She learned long ago that in order to listen well, she needs to distract part of her too-active brain. So she's learned to knit or smoke or tat, just to focus. Her desire for travel is another sort of restlessness. Her interest in new books, new authors, new thoughts: all a manifestation of her restlessness. But restlessness without bravery means dissatisfaction. She wants something, but is she willing to take the risk to find it?"