I’d been married five years when I found myself at a point I never thought possible — on the precipice of becoming an unfaithful wife.
My husband and I are high-school sweethearts, and I’ve led the entirety of my adult romantic life (and my adult life for that matter) with him by my side. As a new wife, I viewed the world from a moral high ground where love existed in the simplest terms. I thought of marriage as a seal on the heart, such that a love powerful enough to lead two people into a lifelong commitment could never legitimately fade. Although I knew couples who divorced, sometimes ten or twenty years into their marriage, I saw these ruptures as signs of the couple’s fragility or immaturity rather than evidence that my own perception of romantic partnership might be flawed.
And then I almost became one of those couples, too. Looking back, now fifteen years into my marriage, I can only shake my head at my younger self. I had so much to learn.
My journey as a wife and lover has included several well-loved novels, sought out for escape or nourishment over the years, but it is my shifting perceptions of one story that I feel places my own emotional evolution in stark relief: the classic love triangle in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.
I first read The Age of Innocence as a high school senior, when my husband and I began dating. He was a freshman in college. We’d met a few years before in a youth orchestra (I played the oboe, he played percussion), but despite mutual interest our courtship had stalled until he called one day months later and invited me, of all things, to a band concert.
It was at the height of my own heady teenage love that I discovered Wharton’s story of Newland Archer and his marriage to one woman despite his love for another. Not surprisingly, the tale struck me then as a tragedy. My young and untested heart saw the story in terms of missed opportunities and romantic foreclosures. I was angered, in that first reading, by Newland’s choice to marry May despite his knowledge that he did not truly love her the way he loved May’s exotic cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. In a scene several weeks before his wedding to May, Newland confesses his feelings to Ellen, only to immediately retreat back into the safety of his engagement to May.
“May guessed the truth,” he said. “There is another woman—but not the one she thinks.”
Ellen Olenska made no answer, and did not move. After a moment he sat down beside her, and, taking her hand, softly unclasped it, so that the gloves and fan fell on the sofa between them.
She started up, and freeing herself from him moved away to the other side of the hearth. “Ah, don’t make love to me! Too many people have done that,” she said, frowning.
Archer, changing color, stood up also: it was the bitterest rebuke she could have given him. “I have never made love to you,” he said, “and I never shall. But you are the woman I would have married if it had been possible for either of us.”
I saw Newland Archer as a coward, and May’s choice to say she was pregnant well before she knew it to be true seemed a cheap trick that proved her own selfishness. The only member of this love triangle who I felt had any decency was Countess Olenska, who loved Newland and yet resisted his affections in order to avoid harming her cousin. Naturally, the end of the novel where we find the widowed Newland eschewing the opportunity to see Ellen again annoyed me even further, and confirmed my opinion at the time that Newland was incapable of any form of brave passion.
It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.
He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.
At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.
My take on this classic tale remained set throughout the next several years of my relationship with my future husband. We developed a strong and deep connection with each other as we pursued our undergraduate studies, eventually finding ourselves as newlyweds in our early twenties at the beginning of graduate school and our adult lives together. I was decidedly brash as a young spouse — and desperately in love.
At my bridal shower, I remember a family friend, herself married some forty years, wished my husband and I great luck in our marriage. Although I cringe now to recall it, my 20-something-self responded with, “Oh, we won’t need luck,” a sentiment I sincerely believed. Unlike Newland, my husband and I were marrying with a passionate love as our foundation and with no one competing for our affections. I still thought of love as a stable and intractable force — once found, it would never leave. My retort brought what I thought was a smug smile to my family friend’s face and I felt disappointed by her critical view of marriage. Now, though, I see her advice and her smile for what it was: Wisdom.
Five years into married life and ten years into our relationship, my husband and I hit an impasse. As anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship can attest, happy couplings erode slowly over time, so slowly that you can’t see the disintegration until one day you find yourself crying into your cereal and wondering why your husband seems to dislike you so much. It was this period of my marriage that marked my second reading of Newland, May, and Countess Olenska’s love triangle. It was also the first time I realized I was capable of cheating on my husband.
The causes of our unraveling marriage are difficult to identify even now, years later and in a much more solid and loving place. In general, I believe it was the usual suspects: criticism, entitlement, and laziness. On both of our parts. Regardless of the catalyst, the facts remain that I was a young married woman who’d begun to recognize that perhaps my husband was not the only source of affection. Perhaps he wasn’t ‘the one’ for the rest of my life.
It was a scary prospect for me, but I also found myself invigorated. Although my options for potential new partners were not exactly manifold, I found myself fantasizing about different men in my life who I felt might provide the emotional love I no longer experienced in my marriage. And of course, in reading The Age of Innocence again, my views of Newland were entirely changed. My disdain was replaced with a whole-hearted empathy for him. I saw Newland as a man flailing in a loveless marriage while another pathway for real affection remained just out of his reach. It’s not going too far to say that I identified with Newland on this second read. Although I hadn’t secured a new pathway for love, I had accepted its possibility and that, if presented with the option, I would likely pursue it.
Archer choked with the sense of wasted minutes and vain words.
“Then what, exactly, is your plan for us?” he asked.
“For us? But there’s no us in that sense! We’re near each other only if we stay far from each other. Then we can be ourselves. Otherwise we’re only Newland Archer, the husband of Ellen Olenska’s cousin, and Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer’s wife, trying to be happy behind the backs of the people who trust them.”
“Ah, I’m beyond that,” he groaned.
“No, you’re not! You’ve never been beyond. And I have,” she said, in a strange voice, “and I know what it looks like there.”
He sat silent, dazed with inarticulate pain.
But just when I’d accepted our relationship was irretrievable, another surprise came: My husband named the darkness taking hold in our love. He told me about his struggles within our marriage that I’d ignored entirely, being so focused on my own self-assigned role of victim in our relationship. And I listened. And then I told my husband how I was feeling. I laid it all out there — the fantasies, the divorce-lawyer shopping online, the misery. And he listened. It was a conversation that set us aright — not immediately, and not without effort and tears and one time where I childishly yelled expletives at him from the front porch as he headed off to work — but I can look back ten years later, from the vantage point of a happy and loved spouse partnered with another happy and loved spouse, and see that discussion as a turning point in our marriage. I’m so very grateful that I didn’t jettison years of friendship and affection because even the idea of other options seemed more attractive in the moment. I’m also grateful that my husband helped me grow into a better partner, rather than simply giving up on us.
Reading The Age of Innocence again this past year brought with it yet another perspective on the star-crossed trio: for me, May has become the hero of the tale. It was May who loved Newland enough to forgive him his indiscretions with Ellen. Although May is portrayed in portions of the novel as naive and even vapid, Wharton weaves throughout the story hints at May’s true depth of understanding. She wasn’t stupid or self-absorbed. May saw Newland’s emotional affair with the Countess for what it was — a fantasy of love that would not hold with time.
Much like my own perusals for future partners, I’d argue Newland’s devotion to Countess Olenska was more a response to his dissatisfaction with his own life rather than a real affair of the heart. Even if he were to leave May and love Ellen, his problems would follow him, much as my own failings as a partner would have followed me into my next relationship. Rather than viewing it as an entrapment, May’s early revelation of her pregnancy strikes me currently as auspicious in its timing, as it helped prevent Newland from throwing away his marriage for a fleeting romance.
Near the end of the novel and now a widower, Newland has a conversation with his son, Dallas, where he discovers this powerful and loving intervention of his wife:
“Yes: the day before she died. It was when she sent for me alone — you remember? She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.”
Archer received this strange communication in silence. . . After a little while he did not regret Dallas’s indiscretion. It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guess and pitied. . . And that it should have been his wife moved him indescribably.
Having lived through several phases of love, and with hopefully many more still to come, I stand with May in acknowledging the value of two lives woven together, but I also understand how tempting alternatives can be when you let those threads fray, untended, as both Newland and I almost did. Thankfully, we both had spouses who stepped in just before irrevocable damage was done to guide us over the chasm, our marriages still intact. I don’t know where my life or my heart will be the next time I read Newland, May, and Ellen’s story, but for now Wharton’s The Age of Innocence affirms what has become for me an essential truth: In love, you’ll need hard work, and more than a little luck.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
Anyone who has followed Jay McInerney’s long career has watched his gradual shift from a would-be F. Scott Fitzgerald to a kind of modern male Edith Wharton at home in the very circles of wealth and prestige his younger self so desperately yearned to break into. In the best of his early books, including his 1984 debut Bright Lights, Big City and Brightness Falls, published eight years later, McInerney’s characters were brash upstarts from the provinces intent on storming New York’s citadels of power that, in their minds, glowed at the heart of the metropolis like the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. These incursions inevitably failed, but the heady cocktail of youthful idealism and drug-fueled self-loathing that propelled their execution lent those early books an edgy, antic charm that sent copies flying off bookstore shelves.
But that was all a very long time ago when McInerney was himself a brash upstart from the provinces. Since then, he has published several bestselling novels, been the subject of countless magazine profiles and gossip columns, and married four women, most recently Anne Hearst, sister of Patty, and heir to the Hearst publishing fortune. In his more recent novels, among them Bright, Precious Days, which comes out this week, McInerney’s characters, while born elsewhere, are long-time New Yorkers who attend lavish society dinners and rub shoulders with crude-minded finance types Edith Wharton would recognize at first sight.
McInerney is clearly wise to this shift. Bright, Precious Days, the third volume in a trilogy that began with Brightness Falls, brims with Wharton references, and it isn’t hard to imagine McInerney seeing Russell Calloway, one half of the couple at the center of the trilogy, as a 21st century Newland Archer, the bibliophilic gentleman lawyer of Wharton’s 1920 masterwork The Age of Innocence, who, as Russell might put it, values “the Art and Love team” over “the Money and Power team.” It’s a bit more of stretch, but it’s even possible to picture Russell’s wife Corrine as one of Wharton’s smart, headstrong heroines reimagined for a modern age when a Lily Bart or Ellen Olenska could be a happily emancipated woman married to the same man for 25 years.
Unfortunately for his readers, the Wharton mantle is an uncomfortable fit for McInerney. Wharton was a native not only of New York, but of the uppermost echelons of its high society. Born Edith Jones, into the family for which the phrase “keeping up the Joneses” was coined, Wharton never suffered under the Fitzgeraldian illusion that the rich are different from the rest of humanity. When she describes Newland Archer in the opening pages of The Age of Innocence as “at heart a dilettante, [for whom] thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realization,” she is describing a rich man’s affliction, but also a distinctly human, painful one. Newland is a man bursting with love who, by some quirk of personality and upbringing, cannot show it openly to another living being.
McInerney, on the other hand, despite his decades as a successful New Yorker and his marriage to an actual heiress, retains an outsider’s reflexive fascination with, and envy of, the city’s plutocratic set. Status envy fuels nearly every sentence of Bright, Precious Days, from its breathless recitations of high-end restaurant meals to the Calloways’ constant carping about the inadequacies of their 1,800-square-foot TriBeCa loft, with its single bathroom and uneven wooden floors.
The Calloways, you see, rent but cannot afford to buy their TriBeCa loft or their Hamptons summer home, and when they indulge their pleasures, whether it be bonefishing in the Bahamas or guzzling first-growth Bordeaux at a Manhattan eatery, they can only do so at the invitation of their wealthier friends. That they are successful in their professions, Russell running his own publishing house, Corrine the CEO of a charitable nonprofit, and that their children, though occasionally sarcastic and whiny, seem reasonably happy and loving – all this means nothing. Well into middle age, Russell and Corrine remain at heart perpetual children with their noses pressed against the window pane, wondering what the rich kids are doing.
“How was it,” Russell asks himself late in the novel, “that after working so hard and by many measures succeeding and even excelling in his chosen field, he couldn’t afford to save this house that meant so much to his family? Their neighbors seemed to manage, thousands of people no smarter than he was — less so, most of them — except in their understanding of the mechanics of acquisition.”
That sound you hear in the background is the world’s smallest violin playing “New York, New York.” But the Calloways are deaf to the tune, and so Russell, displaying his lack of understanding of the mechanics of acquisition, overpays for a memoir of dubious provenance, and Corrine, wishing to escape the horrors of upper-middle-class poverty in TriBeCa, rekindles an old fling with a globe-trotting private equity baron with whom she has nothing in common beyond the fact that they are married to other people.
There is plenty more to Bright, Precious Days, some of it interesting, great masses of it flabby and cuttable, but this is as close as the novel comes to a true narrative engine: As they enter their 50s, Russell and Corrine pretty much have it all – great jobs, lustworthy real estate, loving kids, lifelong friends – yet still feel cheated by life. Why can’t they own their TriBeCa loft? Why can’t they blow thousands of dollars on a bottle of wine at lunch? Why can’t they take their friends bonefishing in the Bahamas? Why, oh why, is the world so unfair?
The Calloways seemingly had it all in Brightness Falls, too, but in that book, the pair’s thirst for still more made them compelling, even admirable, Corrine restlessly seeking meaning in life, Russell, wildly ambitious and impetuous to a fault, engineering a leveraged buyout of the publishing house where he worked as an editor. That he failed in spectacular fashion was less salient than the fact that he had the nerve to try, that at the height of the go-go 1980s, when Brightness Falls is set, he could imagine turning the machinery of commerce against itself to further the aims of art.
By the mid-2000s, when Bright, Precious Days is set, that Russell Calloway is gone, his place taken by a cossetted, self-involved gourmand who revels in knowing which strings to pull to get reservations at the latest trendy restaurant and walks an extra three blocks on his way to work to buy his morning latte at the café that, in his view, makes “the best coffee in the city.” If anything, Corrine, always the more likable of the pair, has become an even greater cipher, risking a family and husband she loves for a pallid, cliché-ridden affair with a semi-retired financial titan possessing all the outward personality of a bonefish.
Two years ago on this site I made the case for Bright Lights, Big City “as one of the great undiscovered gems of post-World War II American literature.” I stand wholeheartedly behind that judgment, and I would put Brightness Falls, along with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, on any list of indispensable novels about the 1980s. Whatever else you could say about the young Jay McInerney, he was a damn good novelist. But it seems long past time to admit that, like his fictional avatar Russell Calloway, that early Jay McInerney is long gone, his place taken by an aging society wit, whose work, while never less than polished and professional, has lost its precious brightness.