Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields

Title: The Age of Desire
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.

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GIVEAWAY!

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.

34 comments:

  1. I don't read a lot of historical fiction but I do enjoy reading about authors and artists for some odd reason. I'll have to think about this one.

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    1. It's fun to see how they might have lived -- it makes them real for me, and that's always a fun/discomforting experience -- esp if I'm v fangirl-ish about them. This was a light, quick read with some surprising dark elements -- it could be fun for the summer!

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  2. Thanks for the review. I love the sound of this book and I think I have an ARC of it floating around here somewhere...

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    1. Oooh, let me know what you think of it if you do get around to it -- it was quite fun and very provocative -- had me updating my GR status non-stop with gasps and protests and squees.

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  3. I love Wharton, and her house (the Mount) in western MA is worth the visit!! Very interesting, and beautiful. Sounds like an intriguing read.

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    1. Jenna -- you have to get this book then as the Mount is almost a character in this book -- along with France -- I've never been but want to badly -- must be so gorgeous!

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  4. I just read this one recently and I enjoyed it. I am a huge Wharton fan but I knew nothing of her personal life before reading this book. There were times that I too wanted to shake Edith and tell her to stop being involved with Fullerton, he was so not worth it.

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    1. Having finished, I can say I enjoyed this although while reading it, I was going nuts -- the more I learned about Fullerton, the more I thought -- what are you thinking?! -- but I loved her snappy comment to him near the end, about paying the cafe bill.

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  5. Our reactions to this book were practically identical! I reviewed it for another publication (which hasn't posted it online) but I'll put it up on my blog shortly. I agree about Fullerton and his relationship with Edith. I felt sorry for her at the time, falling for someone like that.

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    1. I've been dying for your review -- when I saw you rated it on GR but hadn't posted a review, I figured you were waiting until it was published before sharing. Can't wait to read your thoughts. A friend linked me to the Hermione Lee LBR review about the Fullerton bio, and my goodness, he's a piece of work!

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    2. What a fascinating review and discussion - thanks for the link! And what a messy relationship and unsavory character. Ugh. I've been eagerly looking forward to August since I read so many August novels over the last few months and have been waiting to repost the reviews.

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  6. I am going to be reading this one soon, and I am glad to hear that it is indeed an interesting and compelling read. I have only read a bit by Wharton, but I can see her as you have described her here, and am very interested in getting to the bottom of this story myself! GReat job today, Audra!

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    1. So messy, so tawdry -- and yet, so good -- I mean, I love that Wharton found some passion but ugh, what a man. Can't wait to see what you think of it, Heather!

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  7. I have this to read, too, and know almost nothing about Edith Wharton, so I'm glad to have a better idea what to expect now!

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    1. Looking forward to your review -- it's a very fast read!

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  8. Unlike many lovers of historical fiction I am extremely wary of novels that fictionalise the lives of historical figures, but I do so love Wharton's work that I have actually been tempted by this book. I am grateful for your review because it has helped me bring me back to my senses, although I will make sure to read Sarah's review, too, as a sanity check. I hardly ever go wrong when I pay attention to the thoughts of the two of you!
    The fact that The age Of Desire is not a rosy story would be a plus, because I find Wharton's (love) life anything but. However, my impression of Wharton's personality differs from the apparent interpretation by Fields. The depth of feeling, psychological perceptiveness, and sympathy Wharton displays in her novels coupled with, for example, her vigorous relief efforts in wartime Europe (refugee services, children's rescue, as well as war reportage) have painted a somewhat different image of her for me, one complex enough to make her seem very human - frail despite her strengths, warm and humorous despite the tight controls imposed on any Gilded Age American society woman at the time. I expect it must have been very hard indeed to combine the demands of respectability with indulgence of personal wants and needs. She once wrote, "There are lots of ways of being miserable, but there's only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running round after happiness. If you make up your mind not to be happy there's no reason why you shouldn't have a fairly good time."

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    1. There was a kind of pathetic-ness to both Edith and Anna in this book, with their one-sided affections for men who were wrong for them. In some ways, that fit the arc of this book -- everyone was desiring things, for good and bad -- and it worked in *this* case -- but I can see that it might not be a wholly satisfying interpretation of either Edith or Anna.

      This is very much a snapshot of a woman during a specific crisis of her life -- three years -- so for me -- not having huge emotional attachments to Wharton -- I didn't mind how Fields shaped her (although I did totally judge her for taking on Field's Fullerton. Ick!).

      I always find this discussion of ... I don't know what it is, a figure's ... authenticity ... to be so interesting because I'm sure Fields would say her articulation of Wharton reflected all those things you mentioned -- her depth of feeling, psychological perceptiveness, sympathy. Did I not pick that up? I saw it, but I saw her frailty and foibles more -- but that might just be me.

      If you'd like my copy of this book -- just in case curiosity wins -- I'd be happy to pass it on -- email me!

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    2. What an extraordinarily kind offer, Audra. It warms my heart :-) If I felt I might do your generosity or the book justice, I would rush to accept, but as things are, I will simply thank you with a virtual hug.

      The process of selecting a particular book to read for pleasure from a seemingly infinite amount of offerings often contains a capricious element, such as a combination of instinct and randomness. That is why finding reviewers whose reactions, thoughts, and tastes fit or complement my own is a gift. In a case like this, where the odds were already raised against my liking a book despite my interest in its subject, it doesn’t really matter if the author intended something quite different from how you interpreted or experienced her writing. The matter of authenticity can quickly become a thorny subject, especially when an author tries to pit her research and skill against the alchemy that happens between her book and an individual reader. Since, however, a work of art, a piece of literature, is transformed in the act of reading, I find it a fruitful exercise to consider a book through my favourite reviewers’ frames of reference. I have no obligation to pay money or devote my time in order to give a particular book or its author a chance, but I do have the experience of being guided in rewarding directions when something you, Audra, discuss in a review stimulates my interest or imagination. And when you have reservations or puzzle about something, I know it is worth paying attention and keeping those things in mind as I make my final decision.

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  9. I most definitely want to read this one! Edith Wharton is one of my all-time favorite writers and I find her fascinating as a person. Throw in some juicy chick-litty goodness and I can only imagine this read is a hoot and a holler!

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    1. Brooke -- you're going to love this one then! It's got it all -- sex, angst, drama, spats, philosophical ruminations, travel, and clothes! ;)

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  10. I have a tough time with books that I struggle with from the beginning. I'll have to ponder this one a bit more...

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    1. I haven't been able to find an excerpt to link you to -- thought that might help you decide if you liked it. Will keep looking tho!

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  11. Ahh, this one sounds like something right up my alley right about now. I love Edith Wharton and I've heard quite a high amount of debate that Ms. Wharton had a lot of sexual innuendo in her stories. Totally getting this one!

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    1. Certainly her fiction must have changed after this affair -- how could it not be? Would love to know your opinion if/when you get to this one -- I'm kind of inspired to do a Wharton jag now and see myself!

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  12. I like the sound of this book and I'm looking forward to reading it! Thanks for the chance to win a copy.

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    1. It's a perfect summertime read -- thanks for popping by to enter (I always love when I can do giveaways!)

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  13. This sounds like an interesting book. And I do LOVE the look of the cover!

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    1. Ok, now after reading the book and finally writing my review - I can leave a more detailed comment. I agree with what you said on my review - it was hard to really like any of them. And I SOOOO wish there was some kind of historical note/author note, that was a huge issue to me - I also don't know much about Wharton's life either. I listened to it on audio which was fun as the narrator did a great job with the characters. Great review.

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  14. I believe this one shipped today from Amazon :) Can't wait bc I'm a long time Edith Wharton fan...my all time favorite is her unfinished The Buccanneers.

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  15. I probably wouldn't read this until I'd read something by Wharton, but I agree with you about the cover!

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  16. Gorgeous cover! Thanks for the giveaway!

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    1. Sorry, just noticed this is for US only :(

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    2. Sorry, Darlene -- the publishers limited it. BUT I have an international giveaway opening Mon! :)

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  17. That cover is gorgeous! I'm quite intrigued by this premise, as I love fiction based on real people, particularly writers. I'll have to look for this one!

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