Young New York lawyer Newland Archer is about to do his duty to family and society by making a suitable marriage. The bride-to-be is May Welland, beautiful but sheltered and kept as ignorant as possible of the ways of the world. Then the careful ordering of the high-society world of the Archers and Wellands is upset by the arrival of May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. She has deserted her husband and now plans on making it official with a divorce. But such a scandal is unthinkable to her family, and they prevail upon Archer to talk her out of such a rash course of action. Much better, to them, to live discreetly apart. He agrees, and soon falls for his fiancee’s older, worldly cousin, and begins to wonder whether the approved choice of bride was the right one after all.
I procrastinated over writing this review before my exams because I was having a hard time thinking of a single thing to say. More than a month and a half later, I’m not faring much better. I can’t say that it was bad, but ... can I say it was good? Hmm ... there were things I liked about it, such as the touches of dry humour and the fact that Newland Archer recognised, and pondered, the double standard regarding pre-marital behaviour for men and for women. Apart from that, there wasn’t really anything I liked about him ... not that I disliked him, either. May at first seemed too sheltered to be at all interesting but then showed her calculating side; while it was nice to see her show a bit of character, I didn’t like her scheming. Ellen was conventionally unconventional, and the other characters had faded from memory so much that I had to refer back to the book before writing. (And I still can’t think of anything to write about them.) I do recall that, thanks to all the intermarriage, a lot of them had other people’s surnames as their first names, which created a little confusion.
As for the May-Ellen dilemma, it was clear what Archer would end up doing, and what the result would be: a life of neither happiness nor regret but merely dull contentment. A sentiment which applies rather well to the reading of this book. As a mildly satirical picture of a particular segment of a particular society, it worked okay. In terms of plot and character, it was mostly forgettable.