What if a widowed father were so rich he could buy his beloved only daughter a financially embarrassed Italian Prince to marry? And what if beloved daughter’s best girlfriend and the aforementioned Prince had met before and fallen in love, but because neither had money they can’t marry? Still, best friend has to marry someone, right? Preferably someone rich as this is the Gilded Age, the Belle Epoque, whatever. So – voila – daughter marries her prince and girlfriend marries rich, widowed daddy. Well, because rich daddy and his darling daughter prefer each other’s company, Prince and daughter’s girlfriend (now rich daddy’s wife) can get together for intimate moments. But hmmm…. that gives a close and concerned mutual friend, confidante and matchmaker, the meddlesome Fanny Assingham (yes, that’s the name of my favorite character) plenty to consider, speculate, surmise and generally think about – as well as scheme.
And that’s what James writes. He puts as many of the thoughts, ideas, concerns and feelings, both physical and emotional, down on paper for us to read – just as many he can possibly think up. Yep, page after page of long, convoluted sentences and paragraphs detailing the intricate and subtle nuances of the thinking of the main characters while skipping over the actual main events (like the weddings) which seem to be only very briefly talked or thought about after the fact – or before sometimes. Suspicions brew. Of course it all comes out in the wash and ends very nicely, thank you very much.
The dialogue is better, imo, than the narration of all those conscious and subconscious cognitive processes. (Oh what would the Freudians think about all this?). But the characters rarely come right out and say a thing – they’re far too prudent, delicate and well mannered for that. And so the tale goes, on and on and on through the minds and conversations of the principle characters. Very little actually happens on the page so the reader has to catch up with that by the seat of her pants. James likes to cut right to the chase – what are the characters ambiguously thinking and saying (or not saying)?
It’s frequently said that there is an air of claustrophobia to the novel, well, being inside the heads of a small group of characters might do that – I felt it. I was going to give up on the book at about 1/4 through but I started a different book and that kind of freed me up again to keep going.
I have to confess to skimming some of the longer paragraphs and pages where the narrative seemed too tightly focused on the characters’ mental contortions as rendered in James’ Byzantine style. The story itself is wonderful, but instead of a nice flow to it, a story arc so to speak, it turns into a dotted line because of the cognitive gymnastics necessary for navigating the darn thing.
Finally – I really admire Maggie at least much as any fictional character I’ve ever come across.