Book Look - The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
An unblinking examination of characters forced to choose between propriety and love, and a time when people still had to choose between the two. What I liked about the novel is that it makes you question both - is propriety worth the price you pay for it? Is love? What constitutes "happiness" - is it passion, or contentment? Can personal happiness ever be achieved if its cost is the happiness of others about whom you care?
Wharton does an excellent job of depicting ~1880s New York society, a construct so brittle that the mere expression of individuality, ambition or temperament threatens to shatter it. Then she creates two fairly empathetic characters, the "restless young man" Newland Archer and the simultaneously worldly/naive Ellen Olenska, sets them against the system and explores - with a brutal honesty that allows for no hope of literary intervention (fate, coincidence or anachronism) - the hypocrisy forced upon them ... and, to be fair, the hypocrisy they force upon themselves.
Had Jane Austen undertaken this tale, she might have told it with more humor but with less honesty. What both authors share, however, is an ability to satirize the often arbitrary, often absurd constraits of "propriety" while simultaneously acknowledging their force and enduring power.