Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: The Portrait of A Lady and Ramblings on Why We Read

Even though I had read Henry James before (Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw), I wasn't quite prepared for the darkness in The Portrait of a Lady.

image from betterworldbooks.com

I read it as a selection from my book group, and so it wasn't something that I picked for myself. Although I probably wouldn't have chosen it, I'm glad I read it. It is one of those classics that's on so many book lists, but in addition to that, the reading experience was mostly enjoyable, though a little depressing.

This novel is the story of a young American, Isabel Archer, who travels to Europe with her aunt. Once there, she is swarmed with admirers, but remains idealistic and independent. However, as time progresses, she makes decisions and seems to change.

I don't want to give away too much more. Have any of you read it? What did you think?

At first, the book felt a bit like a Jane Austen novel. Although they are not exactly contemporaries, there were enough similarities in subject matter and setting that made me expect some of the regular elements in an Austen novel. I was expecting a clear romantic interest to emerge early on for Isabel, but there were so many, it was confusing. I was expecting things to tie up nicely, but then I only had to remind myself that I was reading Henry James.

The book was deep and complex and full of decisions and motives to analyze. Great for a book group. It made me think a lot about why we do the things that we do, and what we are willing to give up. But in the end, I think I would have rather read Persuasion (A Jane Austen that I am currently loving!).

But what does that say about me? I fear that this inclination for happy endings is somehow limiting my experiences. I don't solely read for pleasure. I also read for information, insight, and vicarious experience. So I should be open to the darker side of fiction. Then again, they always leave me with a sinking feeling that I'd rather be without. I know that I cannot avoid all bad things, nor do I want to. So should that factor into my choice of reading material?

What do you think? Are you a Jane Austen fan or a Henry James? Of course, it is entirely possible to be both, and I don't mean to say that one is better than the other. Austen is wonderfully complex as well, but there does seem to be a fundamental difference in worldview. Am I making this too complex? Too simple?

I know this is something I need to continue to think through. But I'd love your insights in the meantime.

1 comment:

Katie said...

I had to read The Portrait of a Lady my senior year in high school, stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to finish it, and therefore remember nothing because I was barely awake. I do remember thinking, "This sucks! Wait, it's Henry James."

I feel the same way about happy endings though. I don't want to be some idiot who needs everything to end happily, but I finished a book Friday morning that had me crying for most of the final 100 pages and I just felt down the whole rest of the day. I had loved reading the book, but did not enjoy being a weepy mess at the end. (At least it provided excellent closure. I was sobbing, but I had some assurance that life would be okay.)

I believe I was reading in a program for a production of Barefoot in the Park about how we discredit comedies as being stupid and give all the praise to dramas. Normally the list of Oscar nominated films could be dubbed "The Most Depressing Films of the Year." Generally I think we need to give more credit to comedies for having just as much the ability to inspire, intrigue and educate.