Among New York City's upper class of the 1870s, before the advent of electric lights, telephones or motor vehicles, there was a small cluster of aristocratic families that ruled New York's social life. To those at the apex of the social world one's occupation or abilities were secondary to heredity and family connections, and one's reputation and outward appearance was of foremost importance. At the center of the highest circles is Newland Archer, a lawyer set to enter into a socially safe marriage with the sheltered and beautiful May Welland -- a decision Archer is forced to re-consider after the appearance of Countess Ellen Olenska, May's exotic and beautiful cousin, recently returned from a lengthy stay in Europe.
Somewhere in this book, Wharton observes that clever liars always come up with good stories to back up their fabrications, but that really clever liars don't bother to explain anything at all. This is the kind of insight that makes The Age of Innocence so indispensable. Wharton's story of the upper classes of Old New York, and Newland Archer's impossible love for the disgraced Countess Olenska, is a perfectly wrought book about an era when upper-class culture in this country was still a mixture of American and European extracts, and when "society" had rules as rigid as any in history.