This was my second attempt at finishing this audiobook – I last tried it in 2012, and boy was it a slog to finish then. Perhaps it was my frame of mind at the time – I was due to travel back to KL from Johor Bahru, the prospect of about 4 hours of driving and the need to digest the complicated dance of cultural norms of 1870s New Yorkers. I gave up about one-tenth of the way in, bored out of my skull.
So I tried again, this time perhaps with a more ready mind (and I didn’t have another book downloaded in my mobile). Perhaps armed by what I went through before, I managed to follow the story a little better this time. As it went along, the emotional complexities of both Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska began to surface. Newland is due to be wed to May Welland, when one day he meets Olenska, a refugee from her high-society husband Count Olenski (Polish! And thanks to Tomasz I know guy names will never end with the letter ‘a’, and ladies likewise will not have names ending with the letter ‘i’, hence Ollenska and Olenski). Archer and Olenska fall for each other, but due to myriad circumstances cannot and could not take the step to be together without breaking accepted social proprieties (she’s married! he’s about to be married!) and hurting May. Newland continues on with his marriage and lives unhappily knowing he still loves Olenska. Olenska, who still did not take the step of divorcing Olenski, and didn’t return to him, becomes something of the family’s black sheep for not returning to Olenski especially, since at that time the whiff of scandal of a broken down marriage is frowned upon. Everything ends many years later after May’s death, and Archer has a chance to meet Olenska again in Paris, but decides not to after all.
This story is about societal expectations, happiness, missed chances and regret. I was surprised at Newland’s stance. This is fiction, after all, swashbuckling, devil-may-care, consequences-be-damned examination of poor choices in life. Except it wasn’t. And did Archer make the right choice in the end? You only have one life, after all. The Road Less Traveled by Frost is somehow playing at the back of my head as I think about this book. Newland did consummate their love, albeit for one night, but it was after his wedding, so he still cheated on her. He was about to leave May too, just on the very cusp of doing it when May informed him that she’s now pregnant. And also that she told Olenska two weeks prior, hence Olenska’s decision to depart for Paris. So he stays.
(Probably more powerful if Wharton didn’t give Archer a chance to quench that almighty thirst.)
Sometimes, things are just not meant to be, and that’s that.
It was after I finished that I realized that this book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. I must have known it when I purchased it, but I certainly didn’t remember it at all while reading it, since I was more concerned about trying not to waste my purchase.
Turns out it was a good one. Ok then.