Book Reivew: Portrait of a Man Reading The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James

You may recall that I brought eight books with me for our 16-day trip. I managed to get through five of those eight. No doubt I would finished more had Henry James not been in the bunch. You can see from the pictures above that I had it with me everywhere I went in Switzerland. Including reading a paragraph or two at over 11,000 feet.

I have never had an easy time with James. He seems like an author I should like more than I do. It took me some time, over a hundred pages or so, to get to the point where I started to be interested in what I was reading. I was bemoaning his long-winded sentences when I began to wonder if the novel could be improved with some judicious pruning. As I read, I started mentally editing the text to remove what seemed like extraneous words. I was reminded of that line from the film “Amadeus” about Mozart’s music having “too many notes.” But then a funny thing happened. As I started to edit the book in my head, all the extra words that I thought might be expendable turned out to add quite a lot nuance, and weren’t as expendable as I thought. And from a process standpoint, trying to mentally edit the book turned out to be a good way to read the text more closely and ultimately get more out of it.

Having said that, I am still not a huge fan of Henry James. There were some things about this particular book that annoyed me more than a little. I had a hard time believing that the main character, Isabel, was as fascinating and smart as James and the characters in the book kept telling me she was. She seemed more like a game player than anything else. Willfully obtuse and unwilling to communicate clearly with people who loved her most and had her best interest in mind. And a bad judge of character of those who were prone to use her or steer her in the wrong direction. Her friend Henrietta I found particularly annoying and meddlesome. Madame Merle was perhaps the biggest villain in the book, yet everyone loved her until they hated her.

As far as the story goes, let me try and sum it up in 50 words or fewer: Young American woman taken to Europe by wealthy aunt. Becomes everyone’s darling and has men falling at her feet. Claims to have an unquenchable independent spirit that refuses to be tamed (married). Then gets inexplicably married to a man who ultimately tames her and makes her miserable. Finally admits her misery but is seemingly unable or unwilling to do anything about it. (Okay that was 62 words, but we are talking about Henry James after all.)

No doubt there are some great themes that I missed. For instance, I am pretty sure James was trying to say something about Americans and Europeans, but what that was I am not entirely sure. And the last pages of the book left me scratching my head. The language was just antiquated enough that I am not really sure what happened at the end.

I didn’t dislike the book, and I must say I missed the story once I finished the 580 or so pages, but I can’t say I was a big fan.

Although I may be a bit thick when it comes to picking up on some of the grand themes of the book, I did pick up on one inconsistency. At least I am pretty sure it was an error. Chapter 34 begins just before lunch time:

One morning, on her return from her drive, some half-hour before luncheon…the
stillness of noontide hung over it…

Yet, despite the fact that the action in the chapter was linear (and moving forward), the chapter inexplicably ends with Isabel asking her cousin if he is going to come in for breakfast to which he answers in the negative and returns to the garden

…to breakfast on the Florentine sunshine.

Maybe James and his editors got confused by his own run-on sentences and didn’t notice the mistake. Or perhaps there is a James scholar out there who will tell me that I missed something and I am the one in error, not James.

5 thoughts on “Book Reivew: Portrait of a Man Reading The Portrait of a Lady

  1. deniz September 13, 2009 / 8:38 pm

    and to think i got MAD at steve because he was reading in the car on our way to a hike (i was driving, of course)…


  2. Overdue September 14, 2009 / 4:56 am

    I am very very jealous of your holiday. My husband is a little obsessed with skiing so he thinks any mountain without snow on is just a waste of a hill, so I've never got to go to the alps in summer but I'd love to.
    I haven't read portrait of a lady either, but I felt that way about Middlemarch. Some books just do your head in.


  3. Thomas September 14, 2009 / 7:36 am

    Deniz: Cars are one place I don't read. I get a little queasy.

    Overdue: And I don't ski at all, so mountains are nothing but scenery to me.


  4. Lorin September 17, 2009 / 7:43 pm

    I read this book while I was studying abroad in Europe, and traveling around. English-language books were scarce and, since I had already finished the ones I brought (and the ones my parents brought me when they visited, and the care package my sister sent me), I was actually happy for its heft.


  5. Thomas September 19, 2009 / 12:17 pm

    Lorin: A hefty book does have its benefits. When you were traveling did you also stumble across any books in hotels/hostels or other places that you picked along the way? I love meeting books that way.


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