Adventures in Cultural Consumption: Books About or By Women Edition

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
There's not a plot point in this book that the attentive reader cannot see coming from a long distance. The very smart girl is obviously going to do something very stupid. The woman who befriends her but seems unable to provide any good account of her own history will find that history to be implicated in what happens next. Henry James does not try very hard to get us to think Gilbert Osmond might be a decent person, and he proves not to be. The ending--so ambiguous I had to read it three or four times to confirm I hadn't missed a telling detail--is the only real surprise. Isabel is alone with Caspar Goodwood who is about to confess his love and there are only four pages left so...

What it lacks in originality it makes up for in specificity. The Portrait of the Lady is a novel of marriage, and of a very bad marriage indeed. In that sense it's a reverse of the first marriage in David Copperfield, in which David realizes the mistake he's made and how he has no choice what to do with it; it's Pride and Prejudice where Wickham occupies the central role. It, in its own way, makes very clear the stakes to old-fashioned marriage: it has all the excruciating exactness of a bad relationship, and far too many resonant passages.

Anne Tyler, If Morning Ever Comes
An enjoyable little book, which is more than can be said for a lot of books. Also predictably composed: when the old ex-girlfriend shows up, there's little question of what will happen. Its merits are in the accumulation of detail--I am gradually becoming a sucker for the south, or at least North Carolina--and one unshakeable half-dream image at the end, where the main character sees his wife and his son (having neither at that moment) at some point in the future.

Variation in reading is its own important thing: too much reading as vegetable-eating and one will never enjoy it; too much time spent on the easy stuff and even the moderately difficult will seem like too much effort. You read at different speeds, alert to different qualities, and for different reasons. It requires a lot of material to discern the relationship between art and entertainment, never so obvious as it seems (and beware of those to whom its a straightforward delineation), in no small part because there is no line that divides the two of them cleanly: art can be enjoyable and trash can be a drag; a 'guilty pleasure' suggests someone who doesn't understand the concept of pleasure; those for whom entertainment is the sole criteria for reading are quite less free than those who have many reasons for reading.

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