Published by Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: August 2nd 2012
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Historical
There are two stories of love in Age of Desire. One is Edith Wharton’s affair with a young journalist and the other is the more enduring constant love between friends. In 1907, Wharton resides in Paris for the winter with her husband, Teddy, and assistant, Anna. Her marriage to Teddy is in name only: he is much older and they have nothing in common. As Edith describes herself she “was raised to be a lady, not a woman.” Into this passionless life comes a young journalist who sweeps her off her feet.
“…Edith finds it difficult to concentrate on his words—she is so distracted by the insistence of his presence. She feels dented by him.”
Edith’s awakening as a physical woman creates discord in her relationship with Anna, the woman who has been in her life since she was a girl of twelve, her closest companion and confidante.
In Age of Desire, Jennie Fields accomplishes the significant feat of writing in the corsets-and-kid-gloves restrained style of Wharton herself. The reader is immersed in the genteel society of Paris, London and New York, taking them back to a time when ship and train were the only modes of long distance travel and letters were the standard method of communication. Even the dialogue follows the Wharton motif of more being unsaid than said. It is marvelously well done and achieves the same feel as Wharton’s work—a frozen expanse of words not spoken. The only point of dissonance is the sex scenes between Edith and Morton Fullerton. It is not how they are written it is simply that they are. They feel forced.
Field writes the novel alternating between the perspectives of Edith and Anna, giving the reader poignant insight into Anna who is, ostensibly, Edith’s secretary but in reality is the nurturing force who brings Edith’s talent to fruition. Her thoughts and feelings, her deep understanding of Edith’s nature make her a character of exquisite sensitivity. In contrast, Edith appears as a woman whose main concern is her own happiness, even when it comes at the cost of the happiness of those around her. It is Anna, who is left to deal with the consequences.
“She believed in Teddy, but now she can’t help but see him as utterly and irreparably mad. And in her darkest moments, it is painful knowing that Edith, whom she loves more than herself, is the one who drove him there.”
Anna and Edith’s relationship is the one most vital to both and yet Edith nearly destroys it and only vaguely seems to recognize the significance of her actions. Time and time again, Anna sacrifices herself (but without even seeing it as a sacrifice) for Edith’s happiness. For much of the novel, she has no sense of herself as a person with wants and needs. Even when she has the opportunity for personal happiness she chooses to stay with Edith.
“Edith’s life is hers. And Anna, most of the time, is just a facilitator. Someone to help Edith’s days grind along more smoothly.”
Beautifully written, Age of Desire leaves one with a feeling of coldness and loss. There is love but it is misplaced, taken for granted, and comes at a high cost. Ultimately, one abandons desire and lives with the sorrow.