Thursday, September 3, 2015

These Shallow Graves of the Age of Innocence

When I was a junior in high school, I read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton for my AP English class.  I didn't have a choice, because you had to reference that book on the AP test and I really, really wanted those free college credits.  So, as one does when forced to read something, I rebelled.  I decided I would hate the book.

I cannot say that I loved The Age of Innocence, but it was far better than I expected.  Even after being forced to read it three times and highlight entire pages in color-coded marker (pink for love, green for money, and so on), I still defended it.  Fun fact: Our teacher asked us what it meant that the word red or one of its variants appeared on one page.  We all looked at her.  She raged, "It means passion!  The passion is everywhere!"  I declined to point out that every edition of the book would have the words arranged differently on the page because this was the teacher who shot wild game in Africa and looked exactly the same as when my father had her for English twenty-five years earlier.

Thinking about that book as an adult, I really feel compelled to reread it.  It's a brilliant commentary on New York high society of the Gilded Age.  Sometimes I wonder if Gillian Flynn was inspired by May Welland when she wrote the final scenes of Gone Girl.


As I read These Shallow Graves, the similarities between this book and The Age of Innocence were staring me in the face.  The main character's mother even talks about Edith Wharton's fortunate marriage, as they move in the same circles.  Here, Josephine Montfort is our Newland Archer, her blasé soon-to-be-fiancé is May Welland, and Eddie Gallagher, the newspaper boy, is the forbidden Ellen Olenska.  Only Donnelly writes the ending that most people would want.  Instead of Newland being too afraid of losing his social status by following his heart. Donnelly has Jo destroy her family's reputation in search of the truth and come out of it triumphantly.  It's the happy ending we want and not what would have really happened.  I felt sad, for some reason, when I realized all of the parallels. Wharton condemned the sexism and classism and judgmental attitudes of her time in a subtle way, instead of running around yelling, "Just because I'm a girl doesn't mean I can't do that!" or "I want to marry for love, not breeding!"

But it's not just the references to that classic novel that threw me.  The Gilded Age was all about propriety, names, and class.  Vulgar topics like love or money would never come up.  And yet our heroine wants to be an investigative reporter like Nellie Bly and agitate for social reform like Jacob Riis.  Where did she get this?  Who gave her Bly and Riis to read?  It's difficult for me to believe that a pampered, cosseted heiress would know of such things, much less have a desire to read them.  I don't think that she would just go to a bookstore in her family's coach.

The mystery surrounding Jo's father's death was interesting at first, but soon it became pretty glaringly clear who did it.  When I skimmed to the end and found out why, I was like ... "Oh."  That's probably because I often assume the worst about characters in a book, so this wasn't really surprising.

And five hundred pages of this?  How many times can Jo have tingle-kisses with the forbidden Poor Boy?  Who cares?

Also, tiny nitpicky question, but if the whole point of being of "good breeding" means that your ancestors were either English or Dutch, what's Jo doing with a French last name?

I honestly cannot even summon up the energy to be irritated about this book.  I just feel cheated of my time and I wish I'd spent it rereading Wharton's book instead.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.

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