Published by Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: November 7th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary
“You seem to me, Miss Archer, a person possessed of a large potential; do be careful not to underspend your resource.”
I read Henry James’s Portrait of Lady a long time ago, but still remember how bad I felt for its heroine, Isabel Archer. She’s a young American who goes to England and comes into a small fortune, is taken in by a worldly older woman who educates her on society and culture and sees her married off to a man who seems to represent these ideals. Only it’s all a lie and she’s cruelly betrayed. John Banville revisits Isabel in his new novel, Mrs. Osmond, Isabel’s married name.
Portrait of a Lady is not a prerequisite for Mrs. Osmond (although you should read it because it’s marvelous). Banville not only fills in the backstory carefully, he creates a novel that stands on its own. Isabel Osmond is a very wealthy woman who is returning to Europe after going to England to visit her dying cousin. She’s not eager to go home due to her estrangement from her husband, but as this is the late 1800s there is no such thing as a quickie divorce. Even if there were, Isabel has a very well-defined sense of how one must behave and having given her word, “until death do us part”, she is reluctant to break it, even if she has grounds.
Having just scraped the muck off my brain from yet another filth-splattered political campaign and the ongoing onslaught of sexual harassers being brought to light, I was ready for reading that was quiet and refined. If you’ve ever read Henry James you know him to be the epitome of classic literature and of a time when propriety and self-restraint were paramount. Banville writes with the same subtle intonations as James—a difficult task, but one where he excels, making for reading that is oh-so understated and almost impossible to separate from James’s own style. For some, this may equate to not enough action, but I enjoyed Banville’s skill in plumbing the internal workings of Isabel’s mind and heart.
It’s all the more surprising then, that in the novel’s final stages Banville makes a plot choice that turns what has been a stately homage to literature into a contemporary soap opera. It is so incongruous with the rest of Mrs. Osmond that, despite its being written in the same elegant prose, it rings false. It’s an unfortunate and mystifying choice on Banville’s part because he had already created a delicious plot twist in the novel that fit perfectly into its delicate workings. Sadly, the second ‘reveal’ is so ungainly as to throw off the novel’s balance and it ends with a awkward thud.