The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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.
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Fables Vol. 22: Farewell by Bill Willingham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book feels rushed. There’s something to be said about how Willingham had over the course of a year or so to plan for this grand exit, but yet it feels like lots of things are conveniently but not always convincingly tied up in a bow.
One of the worse culprits is this feeling of an artificially jacked up reason for the two sisters to fight. The situation that brought this to a head, from the point when sisterly feelings were put on hold at the point where Rose decided to ‘reform’ instead of punishing Prince Brandish (a dastardly villain who killed Snow’s husband Bigby), to the cusp of all out battle between the sisters, seemed like a mere several months. This is of course opposed to the thousands and thousands of years Rose and Snow have been together, with myriad opportunities for this ridiculous flare-up to occur (especially during the time when they were actually not on speaking terms, and Snow wasn’t married with children).
Rose Red and Snow White were still having drinks together when Bigby was discovered to have come back, despite the supposed backroom dealings that’s going on in amassing their respective armies. Snow, in particular, doesn’t seem very convinced on their need to go to war, and who can blame her? This seemed to abrupt not only to her but to me as well.
This is after all a comic, and everything has its time and place, and it is here that the stage is set for all the characters to exit more or less gracefully.
A lot of characters that I actually loved died over the course of the last and this volume. Especially considering how the battle was resolved, this was a massive anti-climax and a complete waste of lives. It also highlighted another ongoing problem I had with Fables – how a Fable ‘dies’. Do they or don’t they? Apparently the rule set early on in the series is Fables who hold strong sway over the lives of the mundies due to their popularity will always come back despite, well, dying. The more popular they are, the more likely they’ll come back. However that doesn’t explain why some of the characters which I’d consider pretty damn standard don’t come back. It gets even worse as it gets closer to the end, since it becomes apparent that these supposedly popular characters don’t make a reappearance anymore.
I’ve found over the years, when it comes to stories, I’m a sentimental guy. I may not portray any outward emotions; my Bookbabble gang has lovingly pegged me as a heartless bastard because I didn’t cry at the end of ‘The Road’ (‘lovingly’ is the right word, right, guys? Right?), but nevertheless I have a fondness for them.
Fables, over the course of its long run, has always occupied a very special place in my heart for its treatment of Bigby and Snow, specifically the special relationship between them and them with their kids. The only time I’ve ever shed tears while reading remains a singular issue of Fables (not this volume), playing the father-son relationship card. I think being a father changes you, and the stories you can relate to. Willingham is a clever writer, and the ending to this monumental series, while not perfect, is fitting, neat if a little rushed, and satisfying. A touching, slightly emotional finale.
Thank you, Fables crew. You will be missed.
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