“The Golden Bowl” by Henry James was a Wall Street Journal book club pick earlier this year. It took me much longer than the designated six weeks to get through because it was not an easy read. That being said, I did enjoy it. The book is split into two parts, the first half of the novel revolves around The Prince. The second half of the book follows The Princess, Maggie who marries The Prince at the beginning of the book. “The Golden Bowl” is a deep study into the marriage between these two individuals and what happens when that trust is betrayed.
Within the first few pages I knew that this was going to be a challenge for me, Henry James writes poetically, but that does tend to make his sentences take forever. “Miss Verver had told him he spoke English too well – it was his only fault, and he had not been able to speak worse even to oblige her. ‘When I speak worse, you see, I speak French,’ he had said; intimating thus that there were discriminations, doubtless of the invidious kind, for which that language was the most apt. The girl had taken this, she let him know, as a reflection on her own French, which she had always so dreamed of making good, of making better; to say nothing of his evident feeling that the idiom supposed a cleverness she was not a person to rise to. The Prince’s answer to such remarks – genial, charming, like every answer the parties to his new arrangement had yet had from him – was that he was practising his American in order to converse properly, on equal terms as it were, with Mr. Verver. His prospective father-in-law had a command of it, he said, that put him at a disadvantage in any discussion; besides which – well, besides which he had made to the girl the observation that positively, of all his observations yet, had most finely touched her.” (The Golden Bowl, pg 5). I think this is a great example of what makes “The Golden Bowl” so beautifully written and so trying a read. It also sets a good example of how The Prince is a smooth talker. He drowns his wife in romantic language and ideas, which in turn allows him to betray her trust without suspicion…at least for quite a while.
In the second half of the novel, Maggie grows up quite a bit. She slowly loses the naivety she had when she first got married and in turn, learns more about herself and her husband than she ever expected. The Prince realizes that his wife is much more than he initially thought as well. “She troubled him – which hadn’t been at all her purpose; she mystified him – which she couldn’t help and, comparatively, didn’t mind; then it came over her that he had, after all, a simplicity, very considerable, on which she had never dared to presume. It was a discovery – not like the other discovery she had once made, but giving out a freshness; and she recognized again in the light of it the number of ideas of which he thought her capable.” (The Golden Bowl, pg 549).
Would I recommend this book? Not to everyone. It isn’t a book that can be picked up and lightly perused. The language that Henry James uses throughout the novel is heavy. There were times when I felt like I was doing a homework assignment, because who would pick up a book that challenging unless someone else was making them? But I am glad that I read it. I think that it is a book that would be a great pick if you’re looking for something a little more difficult, something a little denser than what you usually read. It isn’t a beach read, and it isn’t for everyone, but it is well written and a fine piece of literature in my opinion.