Review: The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields
The Age of Desire
by Jennie Fields
Publication Date: August 2, 2012
Pamela Dorman Books
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from Publisher
Reviewed by: Audra Friend
The novel opens in 1907. Forty-something Edith Wharton, coasting on the international success of her novel The House of Mirth, is the toast of Paris. One fateful evening while attending a salon with her childhood governess-turned-secretary Anna Bahlmann, Edith makes two propitious introductions: French poet Countess Anna Anna de Noailles and American journalist Morton Fullerton. From de Noailles she learns that women have deep, savage, sensual depths and from Fullerton, she learns to access those depths.
This real life affair was never made public in Wharton’s life but letters and journals by Wharton reveal a woman rocked by the discovery of sex and sensual pleasure. Fields’ novel imagines the three years of her affair with Fullerton and the way those around her might have been impacted. This book, however, isn’t a bouncy late-in-life romance featuring an older woman and younger man, for Wharton herself was a complicated creature, uneasy around sex and craving an intellectual partner. Fullerton, dashingly handsome, fiscally unsound, and hiding a sullied past, offered Wharton the conversation and compliments she so yearns for -- but has his own hangups, impediments, and wishes.
While Edith is embroiled in her affair with a single-minded focus, she forgets about those around her -- but Fields doesn’t. Imagining the kind of relationship Edith’s husband Teddy might have had with Anna, Fields juxtaposes Edith’s hot affair with one that burns more quietly, providing an interesting juxtaposition: physical desires, intellectual desires, the seeking of friends and the search for lovers. In the end, everyone wants to be happy, and that comes at a cost.
Fields doesn’t sugar coat any of her characters; they’re deliciously maddening. Easy to love, easy to dislike, the charm of this book is that, in the end, everyone gets their just desserts in a way.
For me, the only impediment I had with the story was believing Edith and Anna’s deep friendship. Historically, we know Anna and Edith remained together until World War I, separating only when Anna returned to the US to fundraise for Edith’s refugee program. 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.
Otherwise, the tempestuous and temperamental nature of the characters fit the story Fields is telling; the grains of truth that this novel are based on seem almost too incredible to be true -- and a result make this book all the more fun. A beach-y sort of historical fiction, this book has sex and betrayal, scandal and drama -- a Gilded Age soap opera that is impossible to put down.
[Note: parts of this review came from my review of The Age of Desire at my blog, Unabridged Chick.]