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The Age of Desire


Winter 1907

He stands at the edge of the salon, and Edith has the uncomfortable feeling he’s staring. A dark-haired man. Formal. Self-certain. There are ten roués like him in every café in Paris. But his sapphire eyes glimmer with a discernible intelligence. His coal black lashes are as long as a giraffe’s. Men should not be allowed to have lashes so seductive. He leans on one leg, observing the room, calculating. How hard he seems to work at doing nothing!

Though Edith has been attending Comtesse Rosa de Fitz-James’s Paris salons for just over a month, she already knows most everyone in attendance. The Abbé Mugnier, with his comical fountain of white hair and bawdy sense of humor. (“And there she was, wearing nothing but . . .”) Playwright Paul Hervieu and poet Abel Bonnard arguing in the corner about what makes a human being beautiful. Russian ballet dancer Alexi Toplar with maestro Emmet de Carlo, who leans his head toward him too affectionately while Toplar’s wife stands sulkily watching. And their hostess, Comtesse Rosa, enthroned by the fire, her crippled leg propped on an orange velvet hassock. They say the late Count beat her and broke her leg on purpose. The fact that she is an Austrian Jewess did not stop the denizens of this bohemia from taking her long ago to their hearts. The French love nothing better than a female martyr.

Clotting together at the side of the room are the table-enders, hardly older than students, each waiting for a chance to say the witty thing that will make his mark. Ah, to be a young man, with the world laid before one! All a man needs is to be clever, and have some access to money, or a profession. When Edith was a girl, her only option was to marry Teddy Wharton. Now, she has managed to make a name for herself with her books. How gratifying that her most recent one has drawn such a reaction! No one paid the least attention to the others.

The nameless man glances up again through those absurd lashes and smiles vaguely as though he thinks he knows her. She refuses to walk over and speak to him and is relieved when Rosa beckons.

“Dear Edith, listen to that downpour.” Rain sheets the windows and the weak fire barely alleviates the damp chill. Rosa leans in and drops her voice. “The Bourgets usually arrive with you. Aren’t they coming?” Her eyebrows meet in the middle with disappointment. “And I’ve invited someone very special who’s failed to arrive as well. It must be the weather!”

Edith pats Rosa’s thin shoulder. “Well, I can’t speak for your ‘someone special’ but the Bourgets always come.” The Bourgets are Edith’s closest friends in France—and the ones who introduced her to the Comtesse.

“But the Bourgets are usually first,” Rosa says. “I’m worried.”

Reaching for the fire poker, Edith begins to nudge the guttering flames. Before she knows what’s happening, a man’s hand wrests the metal spear from her grip. Turning, irritated, she sees that the poker thief is her roué. Leaning across her, he jabs at the fire so fiercely it coughs up a constellation of sparks.

“Dear Rosa, I can’t remember the last time you weren’t worried about something,” he says in perfect French.

“Have you met Mr. Fullerton?” Rosa asks. She speaks his name tenderly, and with a French accent: Full-air-tawn. “Monsieur Morton Fullerton, Madame Edward Wharton. Edith.”

The man turns to Edith, sets the poker back in its stand and—his eyes filling with light—takes her hand. “Edith Wharton? So that’s who you are!” He pronounces “are” as “ah.” His accent is as broad and Bostonian as Teddy’s. He’s an American! In that perfect French suit. She never dreamed. “I’ve just finished The House of Mirth! What an extraordinary book, Mrs. Wharton! The best I’ve read since . . .” He shakes his head.

“Thank you.” She hears a flutter in her voice. She still has not gotten used to the discomfort and thrill of hearing people she’s never met say they’ve read The House of Mirth. As he lets go of her hand, she looks to see that her palm is sooty. Was it from the poker? He takes out a handkerchief, crisp white and embroidered, and gently wipes her fingers. She is astonished, as he seems to think it’s his right to take her hands in his. “I have to ask . . . did that lovely creature Lily Bart plan to . . . did she mean to . . . well, I nearly wept and it was quite a knock to my manhood.” Wiping his own hands, then folding the handkerchief neatly inward, he tucks it in his pocket, leans over and, nearly touching his lips to her ear, says, “Did she mean to end it all?”

Edith lowers her voice too, as though they are sharing the darkest of secrets. “I only tell my closest friends.”

“So hah! You don’t know yourself?”

She looks him in the eye. “Well, I didn’t say that.”

“No, I believe you don’t know. It would be very French of you not to know. To let your characters carry their secrets to their graves.” He glances away, but she sees that his mouth sucks on his mischievousness as one might savor a hard candy.

Edith smiles. “It looks to me as though you’ve managed to hold on to your manhood quite well, Mr. Fullerton. Only a man could look so pleased with himself.”

His blue eyes flash and he laughs. She didn’t expect he could laugh at himself.

“So,” she says, crossing her arms, thinking that perhaps she will not dislike him after all. “What do you do?”

“I’m a journalist for the Times of London.”

“An American at the Times of London?”

There is a sweet shyness when he nods. She did not expect that either.

“I’m impressed.” She notes his lustrous aubergine cravat stuck through with a perfect pearl. His starched shirt with its separate plastron. She was so certain he was French!

“How long have you been in France?” she asks.

The Age of Desire
by by Jennie Fields

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
  • ISBN-10: 067002368X
  • ISBN-13: 9780670023684