To be exceedingly reductive, Wings of the Dove is about Milly Theale and a plot to steal her fortune. Milly is moneyed because everyone else in her family has died (individually, and probably tragically, but that’s all the data you get, Greedy Reader) and Milly herself is slowly dying (of something. She doesn’t want to know what, everyone else is too polite to ask of what. Except for, apparently, you, you nosy thing). It’s all very intentionally vague.
Meanwhile, Merton Denscher and Kate Croy are un-rich and in love. Not adorably un-rich, but realistically un-rich, like, Huh. We are un-rich, and likely to always be un-rich. Enter Milly (plus fortune). Kate is all *meaningful glance* and Merton is all *I think I get what you’re getting at but really I don’t* and it isn’t until some 500 pages in that Kate is all You marry her and then she dies and we are rich. And Merton is like, Oh.
And this is what I mean by that plot summary being reductive, because if the plot doesn’t show up until then, what are the first 500 pages doing? They are meandering, pleasantly but rather bafflingly. This hasn’t happened to me with a book in ages, but whole paragraphs will pass where I have no idea what is going on. Not because of some Bourne-Identity-style wtf-ery, but because sometimes I misplace the sentence’s subject and/or verb. James is labyrinthine, yo.
Un ejemplo: ‘The impression – all the sharp growth of the final few moments – was neither more nor less than that she might make, of a sudden, in quite another world, another straight friend, and a friend who would moreover be, wonderfully, the most appointed, the most thoroughly adjusted of the whole collection, inasmuch as he would somehow wear the character scientifically, ponderably, provably – not just loosely and sociably.’
You can’t just plow through sentences like that. You have to wallow in them, because that’s what Henry James is. In the same way that Philippa Gregory is just a steaming pile of plot, James is almost completely made of prose and setting and character. I mean, things happen. But they happen eventually, at a lovely, decorative snail’s pace.
And ‘vague’ is the soup of the day. There’s a great deal of, She looked at him intently and he immediately gathered the depths of her meaning, and you’re all *raises hand* I would also like to be gathering the depths of this meaning? Please speak plainly.
This circumlocution, combined with some pretty hefty scruples, gets psychologically noodling. I mean, the whole deception is only achieved, despite Denscher’s scrupulous inability to tell a direct lie, by everyone else’s scrupulous inability to ask direct questions. This sort of fine attention to decorum is (along with a name like ‘Merton Denscher’) completely foreign to my 21st century North American brain. My generation feels like it’s rude not to ask exceedingly personal questions, and now I feel like we’ve lost the fine discerning ability to intuit things.
Whenever someone says that a book repays effort I’m all THAT IS CODE FOR ‘TOO HARD’! But The Wings of the Dove repays effort, and I liked it. I had to turn off the radio, and couldn’t be planning dinner while I was reading (shut it, you totally do that too) but when all of my brains were engaged it was very excellent.