The Portrait of a Lady

Friday, June 3, 2011


The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
★★★★

Isabel Archer, a young headstrong American, arrives in England and everyone she meets is completely taken with her. Three separate men pursue her, but she’s unwilling to settle for a marriage without mutual love. She smart, kind and witty, but not easily swayed in her beliefs.

I was in love with this book for about the first 1/3 (maybe more), but then it took a drastic turn. I loved Isabel’s character and her refusal to take the easy road in life. Unfortunately her decisions seem to lose all logic at a certain point and that’s when I lost my respect for her.

I never want books to have a perfectly happy ending just for the sake of pleasing the reader, but I was heartbroken for Isabel and incredibly disappointed in her choices. I always root for characters I love, but it’s easy to feel betrayed by them if they make a choice that you wouldn’t have made.

Despite the plot, James’ writing is beautiful. He catches the nuances of importance in a single glance or polite conversation. He makes you question who is acting out of Isabel’s best interests, who is making selfish choices, who should you trust, etc. The book isn’t just about Isabel in the end, it’s about the delicate balance people maintain in their own lives, often choosing the lesser of two evils and settling in, even if they’re unhappy, instead of rocking the boat.

I loved much about this book, but I don’t think I could bring myself to read it again now that I know how it all turns out.

“You’ve lived with the English for 30 years and you’re picked up a good many of the things they say, but you have never learned the things they don’t say.”

“The great thing about being a literary woman was that you could go everywhere and do everything.”

11 comments:

Teacher/Learner said...

That's interesting that the character went from being liked to being disagreeable for making bad choices, yet the book still turned out to be worthwhile. Usually if a character turns sour on me, the book takes a nosedive. I've been intrigued by Henry James but never read anything by him. Maybe this is a good place to start. The Turn of the Screw is probably the title that interests me most (just visualizing the title as a metaphor for a mystery plot is tantalizing).

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Teacher/Learner - The thing with this character was that, she didn't go sour, I just felt sad for her. The Turn of the Screw is great. Daisy Miller is a good, quick James read too.

Brenna said...

I've read a few of James' shorter works over the last year and really enjoyed them. I'd like to read What Maisy Knew next, and then possibly The Portrait of a Lady, since it probably his most well-known work.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Brenna - I haven't read Maisy, but Portrait really is a beautiful book, so definitely add it to the TBR. I just wanted it to go in a different direction.

Becky (Page Turners) said...

Im sort of the same, loved the book but Isabel sent me crazy. I felt the same about Tess of the DÚrberville's. I know that you have to read these books with the knowledge that they take place in the past where values were very different, but all the same, that woman was just so annoying!!! The Turn of the Screw if my James favourite.

Mandy (The Well-Read Wife) said...

Like Becky, Turn of The Screw is my favorite by James as well. It's been a long time since I read Portrait Of A Lady, but now this post has gotten me eying it on my bookshelf once more!:)

Jessica said...

I don't think I could read a whole Henry James novel (The turning of the screw was good but the writing...)

I did see the film of this starring Nicole Kidman which I think was ok, I remember feeling quite sorry for her for most of it.

BookQuoter said...

Got to read a Henry James soon!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Becky - The fact that it was such a different time period is what made me love Isabel's strong will so much at the beginning of the book. I'll have to keep that in mind when I read Tess too.

Mandy - Turn of the Screw is great!

Jessica - I'm hesitant to see the movie. I don't see Nicole Kidman in this role and I feel like it would just make it worse.

BookQuoter - I would start small. Some people aren't a huge fan of his writing style.

Care said...

Funny, I don't remember much except the setting on the big lawn of that estate. I could even be wrong about that. I did enjoy this one, though.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Care - I wonder if I might have a different reaction to this one if I read it in a decade. The writing is so beautiful.