A Certain Age
A Certain Age is inspired by Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier. While transplanting the story from 1740’s Vienna to 1920’s New York, the author has chosen to follow the general outline of the original opera, even going so far as to use the same name for some of the book’s central characters.
Mrs. Theresa Marshall has been perched on top of the New York social scene for over two decades. At forty-four, she is still considered remarkably beautiful and her “old money” status ensures that she is welcomed everywhere among Manhattan’s elites. What is not readily apparent, however, is that Theresa has experienced her share of loneliness and heartache. When she was eighteen years old, she married Sylvester Marshall, a man twice her age. Her wide-eyed optimism was soon quashed when she found out that her husband’s mistress had borne him a son even while Theresa was pregnant with her own. For the last twenty years, the couple has maintained a friendly relationship and stayed married with the understanding that they are each free to pursue their own pleasures and interests. For Theresa, that interest currently resides in the form of Octavian Rofrano, a twenty-two-year-old ex-pilot with whom she’s been having an affair for the last eighteen months. Octavian wants to marry her, but Theresa is content to keep him on the side while holding on to the title of Mrs. Marshall and all the perks that come with it.
Miss Sophie Fortescue is nineteen and the daughter of an engineer newly made wealthy by his patented inventions. To bring old money prestige to their nouveau riche family, Mr. Fortescue has encouraged Sophie to accept the suit of Mr. Edmund Jay Ochsner, Theresa’s younger brother. When Ox, as Theresa calls Edmund, decides to resurrect an old Ochsner family tradition by sending a cavalier to propose to Sophie in an engagement ceremony, he does so with unintended consequences. On Theresa’s recommendation, Ox sends Octavian as the cavalier. And the immediate sparks that fly between Octavian and Sophie soon start a chain of events that threatens to send the carefully constructed lives of Theresa and Sophie toppling to the ground.
A Certain Age is best read as an exploration of a time gone by. The 1920’s was a time of both economic prosperity and change, and this dichotomy of “old” vs “new” is perfectly encapsulated in Theresa and Sophie. Theresa embodies the “old” set who are trying desperately to cling to their way of life while Sophie invokes the new generation of women with aspirations to step out of the shadows of their fathers and husbands. Then there’s Octavian, a pilot during the Great War who has to determine what to do with his life now that the war is over. Together, these characters represent the very fabric of the Roaring Twenties. Fans of authentic period dramas will likely be impressed with how effortlessly Ms. Williams has brought the era to life.
But like many of the literary works adapted from a different medium, A Certain Age occasionally suffers from a case of identity crisis. In the opera, much of the third and final act has Octavian trying to sabotage Sophie and Ox’s relationship by crossdressing as a chambermaid to lure Ox into a compromising position. In the modern re-telling of the story, Ms. Williams substitutes this oft-used comedy trope with a murder trial involving Sophie’s father. The way this aspect of the story unfolds – with lots of jumping back and forth in time, and with many key moments in the trial skipped over – is not particularly suspenseful. The shift in focus seems out of place in a story that until then has largely been character driven. I also found both Sophie’s and Theresa’s actions and motivations during this portion of the book puzzling. Sophie’s reaction, for instance, is too understated for someone whose father is facing a murder conviction. Meanwhile, Theresa decides to get involved to an extent that seems out of character and for a reason that is not adequately explained.
The centerpiece of A Certain Age is the love triangle between Theresa, Octavian, and Sophie and discerning readers should have no trouble figuring which girl gets to keep the boy. In Theresa, Ms. Williams has created a complex and interesting character. At first, I found her voice grating. Her insistence on referring to Octavian only as “the boy” and her refusal to divorce her rich husband paint her as a shallow, cynical society matron. As the book progresses and more of her background is revealed, though, we begin to see glimpses of vulnerability. Her chirpy and lively narration hides a world of hurt and the dilemma she faces is one that should resonate with women everywhere. What is a woman to do when faced with the prospect of losing your man to a younger woman? Even though the solutions she comes up with are often manipulative and I don’t always agree with her actions, I can’t help but admire her spirit and inner strength.
In contrast, Sophie and Octavian appear much weaker characters. As a woman caught between her own desires and her duty to her family, Sophie initially showed promise. Octavian’s arrival awoke something in her; and for the first time in years, she dares to hope for a life outside of the confines of a brick mansion and perhaps even a career. But her character’s promise of growth remains essentially unrealized and she stays a passive spectator, watching things happen to her instead of making things happen for her. Octavian is pretty much cut from the same mold and mostly just lets Theresa dictate the terms of their relationship. Ultimately, both Octavian’s and Sophie’s fates are decided by events outside of their control.
Overall, I enjoyed the book for its irreverent look at the foibles of New York’s upper crust and the themes of youth lost and the fickleness of men. I do feel that the book is hampered by the framework of its source material, so we get two parts of a book – the love triangle and the murder trial – that don’t really gel together. Still, it’s a story told with wit and charm and I would recommend A Certain Age to anyone with an interest in well-written historical fictions featuring a post-First World War America.