The Portrait of a Lady
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve never been a massive Henry James fan, but I thought I’d give him another go. Portrait is generally considered to be one of the greats.

It took me three goes, in that I broke off at least three times to read other (more “urgent”) novels. His language is wonderful… in small doses. I love the style, and it feels rather like indulging in a very rich Italian pasta, full of cream and other animal products. I’ve no doubt that there’s goodness in there, but I’m not sure how much I can digest at one sitting.

I have to admit, I started to skim. Paragraphs that ran longer than a page were an invitation to dip in and out and to feel that (rightly or wrongly) I could get the gist of character and plot at speed. To a certain extent it worked, and to a certain extent I know I missed a great deal. I do know I missed a crucial plot point (even going back I couldn’t find where one character proposed marriage to another!!)

Then, a little after half way, the book took off. I’m not saying it wasn’t alive before. The characters, settings and situations are real and powerfully described from the start, but there was a dramatic gear shift. The last third is genuinely moving.

I’m not saying I’d cut any that came before, because I’ve no doubt it’s great literature. One day, if I live long enough, I’ll go back and re-read. But the ending has enormous power.

I’d recommend anyone who hadn’t read the book, to set aside the time. It is certainly one of the greats. But don’t feel guilty if you wish to skim the first 300 or so pages. Sometimes less is indeed better than more. Better to do that than to miss the chance of reading it altogether.

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