“The Portrait of a Lady” has been begging for a sequel for 136 years. Enter Man Booker Prizewinner John Banville, who audaciously picks up where Henry James left us hanging.
by John Banville
Knopf, 369 pp., $27.95
Henry James’ 1881 masterpiece, “The Portrait of a Lady,” is as open-ended as a novel can get. It leaves its young heroine, Isabel Archer, on the verge of taking drastic action after she learns that her marriage to Gilbert Osmond, embarked upon in all good faith …
But, wait. You’re not familiar with “Portrait”?
Stop reading this right now, pick up a copy at your local bookstore, and come back later.
OK — let’s start again.
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The marital trap that ensnares the high-minded, overly confident, independently wealthy Isabel must have been a shocker in its day, encompassing as it does adultery, illegitimacy and a smooth-talking female “friend” who turns out to be a perversely scheming pimp with a grasping agenda. The book’s final pages find Isabel determined to face the ruins of her marriage while at the same time fending off two other suitors who’ve pursued her all through the novel.
How it will turn out is anyone’s guess. “Portrait” has been begging for a sequel for 136 years.
Enter Irish novelist John Banville.
In “Mrs. Osmond,” the Man Booker Prizewinner (“The Sea”) audaciously picks up where James left us hanging. Isabel, reeling from the wounds inflicted on her, is still wondering how much of “the real nature and circumstances of her marriage she had known all along without letting herself know she knew it.” She has also caught a glimpse of the freedom that her marriage’s demise might afford her.
While she lacks an instinct for subterfuge, she’s alert to the one weapon she has at her command: her money. After withdrawing an “amazing amount” of cash from her bank and consulting with her lawyer, she sets about remedying her situation.
Banville comes up with plenty of twists, turns and sinister revelations as Isabel goes into action. At pivotal moments, he leaves you wondering if she has what it takes to get the better of those who wronged her. He also introduces new characters into her life who steer her in unforeseen directions.
He has great fun approximating James’ analytical prose, with its mellifluous and sometimes convoluted cadences. Here’s Gilbert, rationalizing the way he deceived his wife for years about crucial facts in his life: “The strict maintaining of secrets had, Osmond firmly believed, an ameliorating effect similar to that wrought by the passage of time. This gentleman was one of those fortunate beings who are more than capable of imagining that a misdeed kept sunk out of sight for sufficiently long — some two decades, in this case — is not a misdeed at all.”
Banville also has a great knack for Jamesian dialogue, as in this showdown between Gilbert and his meddling sister.
“When, my dear Amy, have you ever known me to shout?”
“Your softest murmurings,” she replies, “are a sort of yelling.”
Banville has made a curious change to certain late-19th-century social contracts. (In “Portrait,” the servants are silent ciphers. In “Mrs. Osmond,” they speak and have names.) He also occasionally hits false notes. But overall he pulls off his elaborate stunt with vigor and style. It’s hard to say no to a second helping of Isabel Archer, especially when she’s as full of surprises as she was in “Portrait.”