I'm just guessing as to my progress. I'm reading this on my kindle as part of a Delphi bundle, so I've got no idea where I actually am in the book.
I had forgotten how much I love this book. Edith Wharton dabbled in interior design, and it shows in her use of setting to tell us so much about her characters. Privileged gilded age New York society was narrowly stratified, and the objects and addresses of her characters tell us everything about them, in the same way that Austen used objects and addresses to tell readers things about her characters.
She is also so subtle in her wit, and her ability to puncture the self-importance of her characters. Newland Archer is, at times, so dreadfully earnest - although at other times he dismisses the silliness of the societal shibboleths with ease.
To background one of my favorite exchanges in the book, Countess Olenska has been cut by New York society. She has left her husband, an abusive Polish Count, and when she fled, she fled with his male secretary. Gasp! Scandal! She's come back to New York, where she has been, to the surprise of society, championed by her grandmother and aunt. Her cousin, May Welland, has been betrothed to Newland Archer, the main protagonist of the book, so he finds himself, as well, trying to help her navigate society. When they learn that Larry Lefferts, a man firmly below them on the social ladder, has been leading a movement to reject her (and, more infuriatingly, in an effort to deflect attention from his own affair with a postmaster's wife from his village), they get pissed and enlist the help of the van der Luydens, the couple who are at the apex of the social pyramid, to teach New York and Lefferts a lesson.
Ellen Olenska is pretty oblivious to the fact that she is being ostracized. Or at least she, convincingly, pretends obliviousness. The impression is that she doesn't care much about the rules of New York society, and she is relieved to have escaped her abusive husband, but also that she takes at face value that she will be accepted. When Archer tries to explain to her how important the van der Luydens are, this is the exchange:
So perceptive of Wharton, to remind us that familiarity breeds contempt, and also to firmly put the van der Luydens back in their place. Making them a bit ridiculous, really. The whole society a bit ridiculous, with its relentless focus on trivialities.
Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for The Age of Innocence.