Monday, April 28, 2014

J is for James

Henry James is a novelist whom I feel I should be reading more of. I was in book love heaven with A Portrait of the Lady. And I was genuinely creeped out by his short story "The Turn of the Screw." But The Wings of the Dove was another matter. I found reading it, uhmm, difficult.

The novel's plot is classic Henry James. A couple, Kate Croy and Merton Densher, are ridiculously in love. However, Kate's aunt, Maud Lowder, is vehemently opposed to their romantic involvement, as Merton is just a lowly clerk without any money. Enter Milly Theale, an American millionaire who's terminally ill. Kate comes up with an idea of Merton accompanying Milly in Italy, hoping that Milly would fall made in love with Merton and leave some of her inheritance to Merton upon her death.

First, there are the characters. For some reason, I couldn't root for any of them. Kate comes off as being manipulative, Merton as a wuss, and Milly as a gullible expat. And am I bad person if I wish that Kate and Merton's romance be doomed? Even Aunt Maud feels a little oily for me.

Second, the narrative feels long and winding. Long paragraphs wherein characters just describe their mood made me want to fling this book at a wall. I almost did it though. Almost. But my A to Z challenge calls, and there's no way I'm going to switch The Wings of the Dove with two other Henry James novels that I have. I don't care about the American expat community in The Ambassadors, nor about the ending in The Golden Bowl, which is the only James novel where everything turns out well for the characters in the end. Blecch. Give me tragedy any time.

The ending of The Wings of the Dove almost had me screaming. Almost. Merton, you should've opened that envelope. You should've allowed yourself just a peek at what Milly left you. You owe it to yourself to have done so. Never mind about Kate. She had it coming. When she asked you to be close to Milly, she basically gave you away. Your falling in love with Milly was but natural.

I love the movie adaptation of this novel though. Helena Bonham Carter and Linus Roache were perfect for their roles. Alison Elliott's acting as Milly Theale was so beautifully subtle. The sense of place of the movie was spot on. However, in the novel, the setting can get a bit confusing, especially with James's penchant for long paragraphs and his focus on the characters' train of thought.

The Wings of the Dove is considered by many to be one of James's brilliant novels. But James was never really happy with it. He felt that his characters aren't that fully realized and that the novel's final structure was defective, whatever that means. I agree with James. I would have loved to read more about Kate and Merton and their relationship with Milly. I would have loved to read more about Milly's eventual falling for Merton. In the novel, Milly just . . . dies.

I'm guessing that The Wings of the Dove is one of those novels that gets better after a reread. It is a classic after all. And perhaps I just had way too many expectations about it. In any case, a reread is definitely in order.

Read this book if:
  1. You love doomed romances.
  2. You have a devious and manipulative romantic partner.
  3. You have a thing for Henry James and his long paragraphs.


Jack said...

See? "Considered by many to be one of James' most brilliant novels." Sounds like a thrill a minute. I must get a copy of this for when I can't get to sleep. Sounds like this will fix it...

Peter S. said...

LOL! Maybe I was just not in the right frame of mind when I read this. Hehehehe.