The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields
Author: Jennie Fields
Genre: Fiction (Historical / early 20th Century / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Paris / Edith Wharton / Marriage / Adultery / Female Friendship)
Publisher/Publication Date: Viking (8/6/12)
Source: The publisher
Rating: Liked, in the end, after a rough go for a while!
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Three years in Edith Wharton's life, from 1907 to 1910, in which she finds sensual pleasure, marital discord, strained friendship, and social scandal in Paris.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Victorian
Do I like the cover?: I actually love the cover. Even though the model isn't facing us, that feels fairly proper for Edith Wharton -- private, a bit aloof -- and while the dress might not be totally historically accurate, it gives me the flavor of the era.
I'm reminded of...: Daisy Goodwin
First line: He stands at the edge of the salon, and Edith has the uncomfortable feeling he's staring.
Did... I love the small artistic details that graced the book?: YES. There were Art Nouveau style capitals and lovely decorative elements that were a fun treat -- I think Wharton would approve.
Did... I wish for an Author's Note to tell me what was real and what was invention?: YES. My ARC didn't include one; perhaps the finished volume will.
Did... I love the gallery included at the author's website?: YES! That wicked, infamous Fullerton looks a bit like a mustachioed Daniel Craig, I think -- no wonder everyone fell for him!
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like historicals inspired by/about writers -- and ones that don't paint a sycophantic portrait, either!
Why did I get this book?: I love fiction about writers, especially lady writers!
Review: I had a rough go with this book to start, partially because I thought the blurb was setting me up for a rosier story and what was unfolding was particularly, well, not rosy. 1907: Edith Wharton, in her late 40s, has been invigorated by Paris and most importantly, her acquaintance with the earthy, sensual Anna de Noailles and the handsome, inappropriate, and witty Morton Fullerton. With her are her husband Teddy and her governess-turned-secretary Anna Bahlmann, who have their own complicated feelings for each other. As Edith pursues an emotional, and then physical, affair with Fullerton, her life becomes unsurprisingly complicated.
I only have the scantest familiarity with Wharton's life so almost everything that unfolded was a surprise to me (my ARC didn't include any sort of Author's or Historical Note to outline what was invented or conjecture and what was historical, which sort of bugged me.).One of the challenges of historical fiction is that the author essentially has an outline to stick to, and the skill is in making what we know happened feel believable in context of the story the author has told, the characters they've painted.
We know Anna remained with Edith through World War I; clearly devoted to each other, recently it has come out that Anna had an immense hand in shaping Edith as a writer. Fields' articulation of Wharton felt right to me -- imperious, selfish, emotional stunted, self absorbed to the point of being cruel -- and so, her treatment of Anna seemed very possible. However close she and Anna were, Wharton strikes me as someone who always perceived help as the help, and so when she dismissed or sent Anna away, I believed that. What I couldn't quite buy is why Anna kept returning to her. Fields includes letters between them -- I'm unsure if they're real or penned by her for the book -- that evoke an emotional tenderness, but when they interacted in person, I felt the scenes swayed between coziness and coldness.
Edith with Fullerton was pathetic; I was often reminded of The Countess DeLave from The Women. What she saw as a life-changing romance was really something sadder, and it took me a while to get that Fields wasn't holding back in showing that. (She painted Fullerton so slimy I wanted to shake Edith -- he's obviously a cad! -- but once I realized this novel wasn't supposed to be a romance about the two of them, I could enjoy Fullerton's behavior.) Much of Fields' characterizations of the players was unflattering, and I appreciated that -- I still liked them -- but they felt appropriately pig-headed, selfish, and self-absorbed. (Vindictively, I liked Edith's cold pragmatism toward her husband at the end; male writers are always putting their wives away. So lovely to see the tables turned!)
I stayed up all night to read this one, compulsively, really, I just couldn't stop, it was potato chip fun. Certainly more on the chick lit spectrum of historical fiction, this offers some racy sexy scenes, armchair travel, wonderful descriptions of Gilded Age life, and a maddening look at a fascinating author.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to be able to offer TWO lucky readers a copy of The Age of Desire! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, closes 8/17.