This is a book to be devoured slowly and leisurely, in pieces, like a rich chocolate cake. It would be inadvisable to attempt to consume the cake - or...moreThis is a book to be devoured slowly and leisurely, in pieces, like a rich chocolate cake. It would be inadvisable to attempt to consume the cake - or this book - in one sitting; even if you were capable of achieving this feat, you would likely be overwhelmed by the richness of both taste and texture. Portrait of a Lady covers a vast landscape of Europe at the turn of the 19th century, depicting social mores and expectations, and the heartbreak of being human.
****SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ONWARD - READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!****
Our protagonist, Isabel Archer, is an orphaned American girl who lives with her older married sisters. Her aunt, Mrs. Touchett pays her a visit and finds her quite pleasing and amusing; she brings Isabel home to meet her husband, Daniel, and her invalid son, Ralph. Her cousin is shy and serious but Isabel draws him out and the two of them soon have lively conversations. Isabel is soon introduced to the Touchetts' neighbor, Lord Warburton, who is enchanted by her strong will and cutting wit. For the same reasons, Mrs. Touchett is understandably frustrated and charmed by her in equal turns. Frustrated because Isabel has her own ideas about what it means to be proper, and charmed because few people have the guts to tell her how it is to her face and the quibbling makes her feel young again. I feel that Isabel's relationship to her aunt is captured quite well in this quote:
Isabel: "...I always want to know the things one shouldn't do." Mrs. Touchett: "So as to do them?" Isabel: "So as to choose" (60).
To further her education and give her niece a taste for the continental life, Mrs. Touchett takes her niece on a trip to Europe. It is around this time that Isabel makes the acquaintance of Madame Merle, a widow with the penchant for theatrics who everyone finds immensely entertaining but rather off-color. She is far more jaded than her young companion and develops an interest in her affairs, providing her counsel in her romantic and social affairs. However, their personal philosophies are quite a bit different. Whereas Isabel comes across as rather self-possessed and self-aware, Mme. Touchett seems far more cut off, and anchors herself to materialistic things such as fine clothing or social acquaintances.
Shortly thereafter, Daniel Touchett dies - and, to the family's surprise, leaves Isabel the handsome sum of £70,000. Suddenly, Isabel is an independent, free to come and go as she pleases. Her male companions each take a turn proposing marriage - Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton, but Isabel turns both men down, gently but slightly sanctimoniously - asserting that she wishes to maintain her independence and see the rest of the world unfettered from the bonds of marriage. Her suitors are, understandably, crushed, and remain in the background, dropping hints every now and then that their affections are unwavering.
Mme. Merle takes it upon herself to introduce Isabel to one of her own acquaintances: a man named Gilbert Osmond. Osmond is a dilettante: a nice way of saying he's not as smart as he thinks he is and thinks that his poop doesn't stink. He has a daughter from another marriage named Pansy who, like the flower she's named after, is very delicate and naive and mostly ornamental. Isabel develops an immediate fondness for Pansy that is born from sympathy that she is a bird in a gilded cage, so to speak, being tended like a hothouse flower to prepare her for marriage.
Osmond, like Goodwood and Warburton, soon takes a liking to Isabel as well. He thinks she is very pretty and smart and, being a man who prides himself on his own unimpeachable taste, decides that she will make a pretty bauble to add to his home (and the fact that she's filthy rich doesn't hurt, either). He proposes and Isabel marries him. Why is never precisely explained, but I think she is attracted to what she perceives as helplessness. Unlike her other two suitors, Osmond is very poor and lives alone with his young daughter, cutting a nonthreatening figure of himself. Isabel, being the misled but good-hearted girl she is, undoubtedly thinks that she is "saving him."
But the marriage quickly sours as Isabel discovers that her husband is not the polite, tragic figure of romance she made him out to be. In spite of his initial claims, he married her mostly for her money and her looks. Her independence annoys him, and he relentlessly attempts to break her down. Osmond does not like her having her own autonomous thoughts and ideas - he wants his wife's thoughts to mirror his own. Not parroting them, but adding to them and reaffirming his own greatness. When he introduces people to his wife, he is comfortable using the term we and speaks for Isabel when saying what he wants to say. Isabel is miserable - her only pleasure is the company of her step-daughter, with whom she has grown close.
Soon, it becomes clear that Pansy is receiving suitors of her own - Warburton and Rosier. Rosier is genuinely in love with Isabel but is not rich enough for her greedy father's liking. He forces his wife to bar him from the household - he is far more interested in the proposal - and pocketbook - of Warburton, who has been paying his respects to Pansy. Isabel does not share her husband's enthusiasm; she suspects that Warburton is only courting Pansy so that he can be close to Isabel - who he never stopped loving. This makes Isabel's relationship with her husband so acidic that it's basically got a pH of 1. And to crown this steaming shit-storm with a cherry, Isabel's beloved cousin is dying - and her husband gleefully refuses to let her visit him, all the while making derisive comments that basically come down to: "why doesn't the bastard just hurry up and die already?"
Unlike other early works of feminist fiction - which usually punish the daring female's hubris by having her kill herself or die of shame - Isabel faces her problems head-on. Ignoring her husband's orders, she visits her cousin anyway and learns two important things that completely change her perspective on her present state.
1. Contrary to what she believed beforehand, Mme. Merle was not responsible for Daniel's decision to leave her such a hefty inheritance - it was her cousin, Ralph.
2. Her husband is a cheating son of a bitch and Pansy is not the child of his previous marriage but, in actuality, the love-child of his union with Mme. Merle, who he treated as crappily as he's treating Isabel. This makes Isabel realize that her marriage was a contrived scheme of twisted revenge-slash-repentance. Revenge, because Mme. Merle is no longer in her prime and cannot satisfy Osmond any longer (and undoubtedly hated Isabel for being the object of her ex-lover's admiration) and repentance because Isabel's inheritance money will provide a respectable dowry for her real daughter, Pansy, should she ever be married.
Isabel is pissed. The book ends with Warburton getting married to somebody else and Goodwood proclaiming his love to Isabel despite her difficulties. He kisses her and, embarrassed (and might we say, flustered?), Isabel flees back to Italy. Goodwood is heartbroken, thinking that he has scared her back to her husband, but their mutual friend, Henrietta, tells him to wait, suggesting that Isabel is only heading back to get closure with her soon-to-be ex-husband. There is also a hint that, in spite of what may happen with her husband, Isabel will return one day to help Pansy find her own freedom from her selfish and domineering father.
This was fantastic. I loved the ending (I was so afraid that she was going to die in the end - absolutely terrified - because the last couple classics I read in this vein, like The Awakening, Sophie's Choice, and Tess of the d'Urbervillesdid have the main female characters die and left me feeling disenchanted with early feminism. WTF does killing off the female characters have to do with women's liberation? That's like writing a book about the sanctity of life and then filling it with eugenics and mass genocide). I also love how the author hints that Isabel will leave her no-good-dirty-rotten husband. What really amazes me was the fact that this was written by a man. I can only imagine that he must have been incrediblyprogressive for his time: not only does he create a highly believable heroine who we can still relate to, even today, he has her take responsibility for her actions and decisions, even when they are not necessarily the best choices she could have made. Hats off to you, Mr. Henry James - exactly what I would expect from the brother of one of the pioneers of social psychology. Clearly, some of those intuitive insights about humanity rubbed off Bill James. An existential masterpiece that should definitely be read by fans of Dickens and the Brontes or anyone else!(less)
#1: Despite the fact that the main character is named "Lol" there is no laughing out loud in this book
#2: There is also no ravishing.
TRoLS (HEY LOOK- IT SPELLS 'TROLLS'. I AM ON TO YOU, TROLL BOOK!) is about a bunch of pretentious, miserable crazy people who like to eat cheese with their whine.
Lol is jilted in an engagement when her hubs decides to get funky in Cougartown. Lol ends up hooking up with a guy who likes little girls in a Danny-Elfman-song-kind-of-way, and thinks it's just great that Lol looks fifteen.
Of course, after they get married he starts chasing after the girls in his employ.
Lol has a friend named Tatiana who's married not-so-happily; she's sleeping around with the omniscient narrator, an Edward Cullen-wannabe who's name I forgot. He seems to do a lot of lurking around in closets and rye fields, spying on everyone. Lol ends up sleeping with Tatiana's lover, and Tatiana is jealous because cheating is only okay when she does it--
AND EVERYONE IS MISERABLE FOR EVER AND EVER TROLOLOL.
Oh Heinlein...you silly man. You've done it again. You may be an armchair philospher with some brilliant and novel ideas, but at the end of the day yo...moreOh Heinlein...you silly man. You've done it again. You may be an armchair philospher with some brilliant and novel ideas, but at the end of the day you still manage to ruin it all by being a lecherous old coot.
My main beef with this main is that he is incapable of not using his books as a mouthpiece for his own twisted philosophies . Now, I'm a firm believer of freedom of speech, even if I don't agree with what the other person is saying, and usually I can ignore a couple off-color remarks and still enjoy the books but Heinlein has serious mental diarrhea when it comes to his ideas. They must be shared at all costs, even if it adds a couple hundred extra pages to the book. And, unfortunately, his ideas about women and sexuality and race are, quite frankly, offensive. But more on this in a bit.
Valentine Michael Smith is a human who was raised by aliens. You've heard of the nature vs nuture debate, right? Heinlein takes it a step further, and the result is that Smith is caught between two worlds with his superhuman Martian abilities ("grokking", telekinesis, empathy, and the ability to change his outward appearance at will, to name a few) and his innate human tendencies. I really liked the premise. Smith was so adorable in his early clueless stages, like a lost little boy. Truly a babe in the woods. And what scary woods they are! Martians have no words for weapons or violence and Smith has a hard time comprehending why anyone would actually want to hurt him. (His billions of dollars' worth of inheritance money and ownership of Mars are just a few reasons.)
After a nurse named Jill helps him escape from the hospital where he is being kept prisoner, Smith is introduced to Robert Heinlein Jubal Harshaw, who, taking an interest in Smith's case, appoints himself as Smith's attorney and temporary manager of his vast estate. Jubal takes this opportunity to throw his weight around and show everyone who's really in charge here and claiming that he has the Man from Mars' best interests at heart, never mind the fact that he's teaching Smith how to be a good little puppet and be seen but not heard.
Jubal is a truly appalling character who wrests the spotlight from Smith in the section portion of the book. He is one of those characters who you can tell the author really really likes, and therefore gets a disproportionate amount of dialog. Most of this dialog consists of long lectures that the other cowed characters (being of inferior intellect and/or possessing two X-chromosomes) can only respond to with, "Uh?" or "Huh?" or "Derp?" There should be a limit to how many times the word "uh" can be used to start the beginning of a sentence on one page. Whatever that limit is, Heinlein has maxed it out.
Which brings me to my main criticisms of the book (continued from the opening paragraph): The fantastic plot is eclipsed by philosophical ramblings that no longer represent progressive thinking.
1. Race and Ethnocentrism: That touchy subject. Jubal has a Muslim friend who he "affectionately" refers to as "Stinky." He refers to Muslims as a group as "Turks" and Indians as "Hindus." And what does he call Hindu dogma? Why, "pornographic trash," of course! And there's also a clear bias toward Americans when the President of the United States is the only foreign leader invited to sit at the Martian table while all the other countries look on stupidly and jealously.
2. Sexuality: One of the first lessons about affection that Smith learns is that touching men = bad. No kissing. No hugging. Especially no sex. Jill frets that someone might make passes at Smith because he's so androgynously good-looking. But because Smith has an uncanny ability to detect "wrongness" with objects, she figures that if someone was going to make a pass at him, he'd simply avoid them or make them disappear (i.e. kill them). However, she still feels relief when he makes himself look more "masculine." This relief is eclipsed only by the fact that she is not a lesbian just because she likes to enjoy watching Smith objectify women (especially herself).
3. Sexism: Despite Heinlein's apparent disdain for homosexuality, he has some very strange ideas about sex. All of his books usually feature a girly harem, with one man getting two to three babes. Initially there is jealousy, of course, but eventually the male character in question convinces the babes that "free love" is free because there is no shortage of it. Loving enough for everyone! This is a key theme in Stranger.
I appreciate the fact that he attempts to make said women assertive and autonomous - this is more unusual than you'd guess from a male author, especially in the 1960's - but his sexual hang-ups hold him back. Jubal threats to "spank" or "paddle" the women around him when he gets too uppity, freely interrogates them about their sexual relationships (and enjoying their embarrassment), and constantly complains that his three women-slaves don't clean or cook fast/consistently enough for his liking. There's also a lot of "psssh, you don't know anything, you're a woman. everyone knows that you're too emotionally unstable to make intelligible arguments what with popping out babies every three seconds and satisfying my sexual needs for your own enjoyment - by the way, what the f*** are you doing out of the kitchen" going on.
As a woman, and a feminist to boot, you can probably see why this would bother me. Especially when one of the female characters says, rather dismissively, that when a woman gets raped, 90% it's usually her fault. I'm sorry, but no. Just...no.
No wait, I take that back. I'm not sorry. Heinlein, shame on you!
The book ends with Smith functioning relatively well in modern society. He develops his own Church, the church of all religions and free love, and Jubal is the patron saint. Jill and Smith and all of his other babe-pals frolic around in grassy fields and nice apartments, eating and having sex and making everything they want appear before them with little/no effort due to their fabulous Martian mind powers. It's a very hedonistic culture, with a mindset that is eerily reminiscent of The Secret; that is, if you wish for something hard enough, it will come to you.
However, the first two sections of the book are quite good and should be read even if you decide to tear out all three of the later sections and burn them. Smith's intellectual and social development was quite artfully done and Heinlein poses some really good ideas that I suspect were taken from psychological research at the time (like language and social development, and social mores, and how different languages can change your thoughts). I can see why this book has received such critical acclaim and earned its place on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, but it is very dated. And it shows. If you do choose to read this book, keep in mind that the author was probably shorted some serious love in the Summer of Lovin' and this book probably bore the burden of that frustration. Keep an open mind, try not to get pissed off, and enjoy it for what it is: a campy sci-fi novel that you will alternately laugh with and laugh at. Cheers!(less)