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Newland Archer, gentleman lawyer and heir to one of New York City's most illustrious families, happily anticipates his highly desirable marriage to the sheltered and beautiful May Welland. Yet he finds reason to doubt his choice of bride after the appearance of Countess Ellen Olenska, May's exotic and beautiful 30-year-old cousin. Olenska strikes Archer as the opposite of the innocent and ignorant May Welland. Ellen has returned to New York from Europe after scandalously separating herself (per rumor) from a disastrous marriage to a Polish count. At first, Ellen's arrival and its potential taint on the reputation of his bride-to-be's family disturbs Newland, but he becomes intrigued by the worldly Ellen, who brazenly flouts New York society's fastidious rules. As Newland's admiration for the countess grows, so do his doubts about marrying May, a perfect product of Old New York society; his match with May no longer seems the ideal fate he had imagined.