As a literary scholar, I find Henry James’s prose to be absolute perfection. He captures a world in which a wrong look or touch can signal grave infidelity and betrayal, while capturing the inner workings of the mind set against a society that seeks to conform and repress. As a reader, however, James can be frustrating as hell. You just want him to GET TO THE POINT and we are stuck inside the heroine’s mind contemplating (again) the futility of her situation. And really, aren’t most/all of James’s novels about the futility of love? I constantly find myself stuck between the gorgeous writing and the maddening stories. So, it’s no surprise that it took me well over a month to get through The American, one of his less famous novels (it’s for research, so I had that impetus to get done quickly…).
Christopher Newman is an American who’s made millions with manufacturing tubs and essentially pulled himself out of the middle class. Yet, he realizes that in the world of manufacturing, he’s lacking the polish and Old World elegance that can only come from travel in Europe. So, he travels to Europe, falls in with an old comrade from the Civil War, and promptly falls in love with Claire de Cintre, an enigmatic widow from an imposing family, the Bellegardes.
As with all James novels, the love story is never as it seems, and all happy developments are thwarted by interference from family, self-doubt, or a multitude of circumstances. Newman’s desire for Claire, while sexless in its description, is aching and sincere. The family melodrama that later unfolds has caused critics to laugh off The American.
I don’t like this novel nearly as well as The Portrait of a Lady, though this introduction was more engaging. Still, Isabel Archer is a compelling character in a way that neither Newman nor Claire can be.
You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.