Monday, November 20, 2023

Review: The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

It took me more than a year to get through this book. It has my maiden name inside the front cover so I know for sure how long it has been languishing on my tbr pile. I think I've admitted before that I used to be a real literature snob, only reading "worthy" novels, an attitude I developed on my own but had strongly reinforced in graduate school. I have since become less of a jerk (and I didn't stay in academia). But I still had this book on my shelves and thought I should finally read it. Well, my mother told me not to say anything if I couldn't say anything nice but I've never been a completely compliant child so I'm ignoring that advice. And let me tell you, the nicest thing I can say about reading this book is that it was a mind-numbing chore.

Bare bones, the plot in a nutshell : poor but beautiful young woman falls in love with poor journalist. They cannot marry because they are poor. Rich American heiress who has previously met the journalist and fallen for him comes to London and meets the young woman. They become friends. Heiress is convinced she's dying. Poor woman is also convinced and decides the journalist should marry the heiress so he'll inherit the money when the heiress dies and then they can afford to marry each other. Things don't entirely go as planned. I mean, it doesn't sound terrible, does it? But in James' hands, it is. He took almost 500 pages to get through this small and unremarkable plot. The man wrote in circles, repeating things over and over ad nauseum. Nothing about the book is head on, everything is obtuse and drawn out. His characters never speak plainly either and there are pieces that are completely baffling. In fact, the plan for the future stays completely unstated until the last quarter (eighth?) of the novel. Our journalist is rather dim until he asks his sweetheart, Kate, to come to his rooms or he won't fall in with her plan. Merton has been unobjectionable until this point and suddenly he's taking advantage of his one true love. Kate is not a greedy Machiavelli until near the end. She is observant but it's still a mystery of sorts how she knows that our heiress is dying given that even the fancy doctor won't say it, only exhorting Milly to "live" and suggesting to Milly's companion that if she just falls in love and marries, she'll come out right in the end. If I had to read a character calling Milly a "magnificent" dove one more time, I was going to heave the book at the wall. The only thing that seemed to make her magnificent was that she had a lot of money and was in danger of being relieved of it. Honestly, by the end, I was hate-reading this byzantine insomnia cure. And by byzantine, I'm definitely referring to the writing and not the plot. Unless you are the snobbiest of literary classic readers, I recommend giving this one a wide berth for sure.

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