Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Review: The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields

When I began reading The Age of Desire I was immediately pulled into the narrative and into Edith Wharton's life, or at least the few years that are chronicled in Edith's words and Jennie Fields' prose. I was not prepared for such a journey, but it is a journey I am very glad I took.

I read several reviews and comments on the book, but was surprised by the vitriol hurled at Fields because she chose to write about Edith Wharton's affair with journalist, William Morton Fullerton, a man much younger than herself and a libertine, while she was married to Teddy Wharton. Their shock and anger were directed at Edith Wharton's infidelity and her treatment of her husband while he was ill. I admit, I was surprised that she could be so cold to her husband, but there are always two sides to every story, a fact that was not lost on Fields.

The Age of Desire is an accurate and very human portrait of a group of people -- Edith and Teddy Wharton, Fullerton, Henry James, and Anna Bahlmann, Edith's personal secretary, governess, and close friend. Fields uses Edith's letters and diary entries to good effect in creating a poignant and romantic interlude in Wharton's life, showing Edith's sexual and emotional awakening in her middle 40s and the seductive lure of a young man well versed in the art of love and the long con. Edith's first assessment of Fullerton was right on the money when she viewed him as a roue. She had no idea how deep Fullerton's perfidy ran and I doubt it would have saved Edith from falling in love with Fullerton or from becoming obsessed with him. Fullerton was, after all, a master of seduction.

Fields treads a fine line between accusation and pity in dealing with Teddy Wharton's depression and illness, both of which were made worse by Teddy's drunkenness and obvious lack of sexual experience. Teddy was an immature man who was kind and mostly harmless, but as his drinking got worse, his depression grew, and his actions in the face of his wife's infidelity became more pronounced, and nearly violent.

Fields' sparkling prose makes The Age of Desire the kind of book that transports the reader to the turn of the 20th century and evokes the time and place with subtlety and veracity. It is hard watching a literary icon like Edith Wharton show her feet of clay and yet Fields treats the revelations with a gentle touch and a poet's gift for illumination. Jennie Fields transcends the mundane by penning a sublime novel with wit and charm and not a little generosity in dealing with the foibles inherent in human nature.

I was captivated by the prose and enlightened by a glimpse into Edith Wharton's life and loves. Most of all, I was charmed by the enduring friendship between Edith Wharton and Anna Bahlmann. In essence, The Age of Desire, is about true friendship and the awakening of desire in both women.

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