Literary Loves

Imaginary Conversations with Isabel Archer

Longtime readers know that Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady is one of my favorite novels. Like the big English major dork that I am, I’ve re-read it many times in my life. I never fail to become fascinated by what is essentially a deep psychological study of one of the greatest characters in English-language literature. That’s a big claim to make, but James captures his heroine Isabel Archer’s transformation from a quicksilver, independent, intelligent ingenue into a “lady,” entombed in societal convention in the worst way possible — through her marriage with a venal, gold-digging gentleman and her own hubris, idealism and egotism. He does it with such genius, precision and deep insight. As you read Portrait, you truly feel as if you are deeply intimate with a character and the movements of her emotions and mind — though she retains an essential enigmatic nature that keeps me coming back to her story again and again.

I most recently picked it up while I was hiding out in my apartment, wandering through my late-summer odyssey of minor yet constant physical pain, during a totally gross, yucky heat wave — which is a really strange time to read The Portrait of a Lady. I always read Portrait in the strangest of times, like at night during the trek through the Thai countryside. I always get something new from it when I read it again — maybe that comes from reading it in the strange contexts, I don’t know.

I had always been fascinated by Isabel’s girlishness, by James’ wonderful characterization of what it means to be an American girl full of vitality, freshness and a willingness to throw off convention to chase after some vague vision of self-determination. But this time around, I became fascinated more by her toxic marriage to Gilbert Osmond, a man of genteel poverty who essentially marries Isabel for her money — unbeknownst to her. He’s highly refined, an aesthete and incorrigible snob, though he can turn on the charm and intelligence enough to convince Isabel he is a viable romantic choice. We’re privy to Osmond and his accomplice’s intentions before Isabel becomes aware of it, which I always thought was an interesting narrative decision. What did Henry James intend by this? The result is that you just can never see the appeal of Osmond — you’re always suspicious of him.

And what he did intend by Osmond? Because Osmond is just not hot. I never understood why Isabel went for him; he’s not sexy by any stretch of the imagination. Even his charm is so thin! I just could never quite picture him, you know? He was more than an idea than a real, living man, but strangely, I feel like this is often true of Henry James’ male characters. (His women are rich, vivid and fascinating, inspiring a lot of different, often conflicting emotions — but his men are sort of just pale toast for me.) Though I’ve read, studied, wrote papers on and discussed to death Portrait, the whole fulcrum of Isabel’s marriage to Osmond has always eluded me in terms of its meaning and my personal understanding of it. It’s like that girlfriend of yours who marries someone of whom you wonder, “Dang, what does she see in him? Ugh!” I often just wanted to shake Isabel and be like, “Girl, you can do better! Don’t settle for that dumbass!”


I Heart Wild Belle, Sagas About Thomas Cromwell and Other Beautiful Randomness

Here it is, my weekly-ish Sparks post, full of what ruled my world this fortnight or so. What’s been making you happy this week?

I Love To Be Excited About Music: Wild Belle Is My Mid-Winter Music Pick-Up

Wild Belle are a brother-and-sister duo from Chicago. They were brought to my attention by a friend, who described them as “Lana Del Rey, but reggae.” This is both slightly true and not true at all. There is a lot of reggae influence in their bright, lush pop music, and a slight jazzy smokiness to lead singer Natalie Bergman’s voice that might invite the LDR comparison. But for something that sounds on paper like it could be high-concept, their music is much less studied — there’s a kind of naturalness and ease that seems to emanate from their pleasure at making their music. Maybe it is those reggae rhythms, but it’s emotionally open and just so fun — a perfect tonic on a bright, cold winter’s day. They have an EP out, but their full-length Isles is coming in March, which I am excited for — I think it’ll be a perfect herald to the springtime.

I have a feeling this will become one of those omnipotent bands that you hear in stores, on TV and in commercials, but I’m okay with this.

Bring Up the Bodies! Bring Up the Bodies!

by Hilary Mantel is one of those lovely, rare books that I became engulfed in, and when I was done, I shut the cover and wondered how it worked its magic. Like: how did that happen? Never did I think I’d become engrossed in the saga of Thomas Cromwell, one of the chief ministers of King Henry VIII, and never did I think it’d be as compelling and spellbinding as this. And I’m still trying to figure out how it worked to snare me in.

On some level, every chapter is action-packed: there is scheming, political intrigue, sex, rumor, and scandal. But it’s all filtered through the sieve of Cromwell’s dark, labyrinthine, analytical yet strangely objective mind: it’s like he’s laying out three different chess games at once, calculating probabilities, weighing other players’ motivations — and then acting swiftly. Part of the pleasure of the book is seeing him calculate and seeing how these play out — whether or not he’s right or wrong, and how. He’s an enigmatic figure, yet strangely sympathetic — moments of memory, grief and sorrow dapple his consciousness beautifully throughout. Anyway: this isn’t a book for everyone, and it’s not your typical historical novel. But if you are willing to play along with Cromwell, it’s excellent and captivating.


++++ Chronicle Books is . ++++ ‘Twas a prolific writing week ++++ Gingerbread and toffee coffee in the morning…it smells heavenly ++++ My head is so full of ideas and energy, it’s a bit overwhelming…I think next week I need to chill out a bit and take some time to sift through them all and figure out where to put my energy +++++ But of course, first I have to FINISH OFF MY BOOK PROJECT! Hoping to dig in and do it this weekend +++++ 12 excellent short films at Sundance ! Speaking of Sundance, one of the nicest guys in my class at film school — a great screenwriter — just got his film acquired at Sundance for a sweet deal after high praise and buzz. Congrats! So great to see great people succeed +++++ I love Jenna Lyons, the head designer at J. Crew, and her personal style, so I was very psyched to see this slideshow and profile in the New York Times on her.

Have a beautiful weekend, lovelies!

Love Letters to Novels: “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

The hardest thing about this entry was picking exactly which Edith Wharton book to write a mash note about. I really do love many of her books, and even as I write this, I feel slightly guilty that I’m not writing about The House of Mirth or The Custom of the Country, both of which are amazing books, featuring Wharton’s signature mix of incisive social commentary, well-considered prose and an ironic take that can swoop to devastating effect into tragedy with a deft turn of phrase.

But I’m a romantic, and The Age of Innocence is a grand, tragic love story above everything else, and it hit my heart in a way that I can’t forget. Wharton gets the push and pulls of falling in love right, of how two people can come to deeply love one another, even if they never really quite touch. And she renders it with a command of classical craft, within a near-perfect structure and polished, elegant language. On its own, the story of the doomed romance between society man Newland Archer and the divorced “foreigner” Countess Olenska would be kind of a potboiler (of a very classy, restrained sort, of course), but it gets its power from the grasp that Wharton has of the milieu they live in — upper-class New York society in the early-to-mid 1800s — and her ability to situate her lovers within this rarefied, but ultimately stifling, sphere.

There’s such rich, loving detail of this slice of the world — you can practically feel the silks and velvets of the evening gowns, the smell of lilies in a conservatory — but Wharton never loses sight of the subtext of this deeply tribal world, and how it shapes the emotional lives and impulses of its inhabitants. Americans like to presume they are independent and free, that they command deeply individual destinies. Wharton powerfully portrays that this isn’t the case, that no matter what our emotional realities are, we are still social creatures and shaped in many ways by the mores of the world around us. It is just that relative privilege allows us the illusion that we are freer than we actually are.

Besides the absorbing, emotionally subtle love story, The Age of Innocence, to me, is a story about patriarchy and its mechanisms, and how even those who benefit most from it can suffer under it. Newland is part of a certain stripe of “gentleman,” and he sits near the apex of the top of the pyramid of the powerful and wealthy. Sure, he’s likely a bit more sensitive than most, and fancies himself more enlightened (and part of the book’s genius is how the veil falls from his eyes in his respect, and how he realizes his own social training has contributed to his emotional tragedy). But he’s still Mr. Fancy Pants, if you know what I mean. That I came to care for him, and felt the pangs of his sorrow as if they were my own, is really a testament of Wharton’s ability to trace the emotional development of Newland so well. And it’s a pretty indicting comment on a society that the villains of the story are the women the system aims to “protects.”

These days, of course, divorce isn’t social suicide, and Newland and Ellen could (maybe) find some modicum of happiness under more relaxed social mores. Wharton’s work, being so attuned to the social settings of her time, are of a time and place that no longer exist, perhaps adding to their grandeur and romanticism. But it still makes me think — especially when I think about all those fiery right-wing female political pundits — of how a society can convince its biggest victims to act against their own best interests. The ending of The Age of Innocence will always slay me as a romantic, but as I read it again as I’m older, I see how the romantic tragedy is also a tragedy of social and political dimensions, existing within a system that has never really quite gone away, which makes me even sadder.

And the ending of The Age of Innocence? Never fails to kill me as well.

Love Letters to Novels: “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I don’t really talk much about my “spirituality,” but if someone asked me about it, I would hand them this book as well as a Buddhist pendant and a My Little Pony unicorn. That would pretty much sum it up.

The truth is that, deep down, I am a moon-worshiping pagan hippie Goddess type at my core who likes nature and enjoys the idea that sex and death are part of a wondrous, immense fabric of the cosmos. Or something like that. Plus, I’m a feminist, and I like to think that Great Big Universe supports that in some way that is absolutely incontrovertible. (You can’t argue with Great Big Universe, right?) What’s the most feminist religion you can think of? That would be part of it, for sure.

The Mists of Avalon plays into this side of me. And, it is a rip-roaringly awesome retelling of the Arthurian stories through the perspective of the women in the story: Morgane Le Fay, Guinevere, the Lady of the Lake, like some crazy great early British girl gang. It also details the historical moment when Christianity was just starting to take hold in England, with plenty of political intrigue and war and pagan rites. And there is enough sex and death to make this quasi-Goth happy.

I first read The Mists of Avalon in high school; a friend told me about it, and lent me her copy to read. I read it in like two days, completely sucked in, and my English teacher wondered what happened in my life that would make my weekly essay assignment so bizarre and ferociously feminist. This book happened, that’s what, although I’d be confused, too, if one of my good students suddenly turned in this huge, semi-coherent argument against the Christian patriarchy and the subjugation of female sexuality.

Of course, I’ve gotten fancier and well-read about feminism, women, sexuality, spirituality and many other things, but reading book was a moment in my life where all these different strands of feelings, experience, thoughts and theories coalesced into one epic story. That is the gift of great fiction — to make whole and coherent a great mass of consciousness, using the threads of emotion and narrative to pull it together. That’s what I love about a good story — when it’s well-woven, it’s a beautiful fabric of the cosmos, one that can pull together and give shape to inchaote spiritual urges and emotional longings. If this book only had a unicorn, it’d be perfect.