The 2nd book in my reading goal is completed. Reading this one was painful, and while I now have Anna Karenina on my nightstand, I’m convinced that it will be a far easier task than plowing my way through Henry James’ The Bostonians.
Published in 1886, The Bostonians tells the story of Boston feminist Olive Chancellor, and her rivalry with Southern lawyer and cousin Basil Ransom. At stake in this rivalry is the allegiance of young Verena Tarrant, a young Bostonian woman, whom Olive has recruited as a protégé in the feminist movement. Verena is a capable public speaker and Olive hopes that she will use those skills in the interest of advancing women’s independence. Basil’s interest in Verena is purely romantic; however, he is a Southern conservative and disagrees with her feminist views entirely.
The plot of the novel chronicles the interactions of these three characters and revolves around Verena’s choices as a result of the influence exerted on her by Ransom and Olive Chancellor. The plot concept has potential and James could have taken it in several interesting directions. However, the book falls flat due to several key aspects.
First, James prose is stiltingly dull and tiresome. I am used to the long extended sentences prevalent during the period, but his descriptions are lifeless and far too abstract. Second, James characterizations do not add to the plot or help explain the characters actions. In fact, the key plot turn centers around Verena’s final decision. To explain this decision he does not expose us to the arguments that Basil uses to effect her change of heart. Even more egregious, he misleads the reader in regards to Verena’s character, effectively saying that her final decision reflects the fact that her actual character is nothing like what he has described throughout the entire book! This is the equivalent to the pulp crime mystery whose final attribution is explained by the revelation of critical knowledge heretofore unavailable to the reader.
I have been told that The American is James’ best novel, but unfortunately, it’ll be a while before I can muster the courage to plunge back into a book by this author.