Somewhere between the repressiveness of Edith Wharton’s early-20th-century “Age of Innocence” and our own libertine “Shades of Grey” era lies the absorbingly sensuous world of Jennie Fields’s “The Age of Desire,” her reimagining of the midlife relationship between Wharton and journalist Morton Fullerton.
In the tradition of novels like Nancy Horan’s “Loving Frank,” about Mamah Borthwick’s affair with Frank Lloyd Wright, Fields employs characters and situations drawn closely from life. Her Wharton is rich, gifted, and unhappy, though already a literary sensation (for “The House of Mirth”) when we meet her in 1907 at a Paris salon. Fields’s third-person narration alternates between Wharton’s point of view and that of her loyal and perceptive governess-turned-secretary, Anna Bahlmann.
In flight from her cruel mother, Lucretia, Edith married the boorish Teddy Wharton, young and foolishly, “for all the wrong reasons.” Fields is at pains to let us know that Teddy is no monster: He cares deeply for dogs and pigs and the great outdoors, and, however hopelessly and haplessly, he loves his wife. But he is no match for her intellect or literary sensibilities and is clueless and oafish in the bedroom. His wife disdains him and avoids him as much as she can.
As the novel begins, Edith is about to encounter a far more seductive fellow, the reporter and roué Morton Fullerton, whose “sapphire eyes” and “coal black lashes . . . as long as a giraffe’s” render him irresistible. We’ve all known a Fullerton or two — an adept of love who has raised pleasing women (and, in Fullerton’s case, men, too) to an art form. His “desire to charm endows him with a chameleon’s ability to read cues, to shape-shift,” Fields writes. So what if he has his own dark secrets and seems doomed always to disappoint those he ensnares?
For a while, Fullerton seems to be just what the doctor ordered for the lonely author. Nevertheless, she hesitates, spending more than one “forlorn night tangled in longing” before she allows him to awaken her slumbering passions. Fullerton’s lovemaking seems impossibly skillful, a romantic fantasy. But the feelings Fields describes in its aftermath ring true.
The novelist excels at evoking the strange, desperate turnings that romance can take, especially when trans-Atlantic distance and misunderstandings divide lovers. Edith splits her time among Paris, New York, and The Mount, her estate in Lenox. Fullerton stays mostly in Paris, and letters bridge the gap. But Fullerton is often silent, and Edith, wrestling with not just desire but pride, alternates between pushing him away and begging for contact. (Fields uses actual letters and diary entries, enhancing the novel’s verisimilitude.)
Bahlmann’s story is less flashy, plainer, like the character herself. She has known Edith since she was a child and helped to educate her. She now types and critiques her manuscripts. But Bahlmann also has developed a mostly secret crush on Teddy, who, in friendship, has given her a locket that she never removes.
Despite her discernment — she distrusts Fullerton — Bahlmann continues to think well of Teddy, even as his mental health deteriorates and his behavior grows increasingly erratic. Meanwhile, she also enjoys the attentions of an older man, a German steel magnate, whom she meets on a cruise.
For all this, Anna’s true bond, which bends but never quite breaks, is with Edith. And so, along with the overheated romance and the middle-age passion it so accurately describes, “The Age of Desire” also offers something simpler and quieter: a tribute to the enduring power of female friendship.
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review, can be reached at julklein