Saher Alam explains how The Age of Innocence inspired her debut novel, The Groom to Have Been.March 1, 2008
Is it too embarrassing to admit that the inspiration for my novel, The Groom to Have Been, began with a crush on Daniel Day-Lewis? Urbane and self-possessed, with a permanently suppressed smile on his lips, he played Newland Archer to Michelle Pfeiffer’s twinkling and breathless Countess Olenska in Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Once I managed to get past the crush and return to the novel itself, I found that I identified wholly with Newland’s ambivalence about the demands of his society and even with his cowardly inability to break free and act on his desires.
But all this was years before I embarked on writing a novel myself, before I even considered being a writer. This was in college, when my mother’s anxiety about who I would marry—that is, how she would find me the person I would marry—could be heard in every phone call home. I was twenty, I was twenty-one, I was twenty-two (the age at which she’d settled down), I was unattached, unmoored, and uncooperative. Off campus, in the dark movie theater, I thought: Well, Ammi, if you can find me the Indian Muslim Daniel Day-Lewis, I’ll drop—in a (skipped) heartbeat—all my silly principles about needing to choose the person I want to spend my life with.
Or maybe it didn’t happen quite that way. Maybe inspiration began with the beautiful, twisting, who-will-marry-whom plots of the Austen novels I’d read before then and loved? Or perhaps it began with the inexorably doomed marital arrangements in George Eliot’s Middlemarch? Being the child of immigrants who’d imported the custom of arranged marriage (along with a strong sense of the kind of people they had once been), I found the central problems of all these classic novels—should a person marry for love or for the myriad compelling reasons having to do with loyalty to the people one comes from?—strangely contemporary and urgent. But maybe the nature of inspiration is such that it’s hard to pin down.
Even so, about three years into the writing of my novel I heard the echoes between the story I was hoping to tell and Wharton’s classic tale: A man of the world, who is rather smugly engaged to the best candidate among his mother’s list of potential brides, encounters a woman who makes him realize that he’s made a mistake. In both Newland Archer’s and my main character, Nasr’s, cases, the mistake is almost a joke on himself, on his own pretensions of being a person who, while belonging to a privileged social set, has long cultivated a disdain for the narrow-mindedness of its members.
In much of her work, Wharton portrays the shifting social and private relations in the New York society of the late 1800s, and, taken together, her novels capture a moment in the evolution of intimacy that was in such flux that the difference between one’s parents’ marriage prospects and one’s own felt like the difference between epochs.
My novel began as an investigation of a similarly transitional period in which arranged marriages and love marriages are both available to my generation. I assumed that the norm of our adopted culture would eventually win out among my peers, but arranged marriage continues to be a viable, rational, and even attractive option to many people I know. So my central question was: Why would a person who’s grown up in the West, who’s taken pride in the seamlessness of his own assimilation and is free to marry for love, consent to an arranged marriage? What possible allure could such a tradition hold for him? To complicate matters, the story is set in the fall and winter of 2001, when the attacks of September 11th came to signal that we (here the larger we, of Americans and Muslims) had entered another sort of age—had shed an innocence that had previously defined our actions.
I hope to write one day a novel as exacting and astute as The Age of Innocence. In the meantime, I’m thankful to have spent some time in its long, inspiring shadow.