So I admit, I have been terrible at keeping up my blog. At first, I was just going to wait to review my book club books until we’d had our meeting, and then I was waiting to post my reviews of other books once I’d posted my book club reviews, but due to all (four) of us being crazy busy with life, we keep pushing back our meetings. So in the meantime, I’ve read 6 books in this no-longer-new year, and I finally decided, on this lazy Easter afternoon, that I have no excuse. It’s time to catch up.
While I still am waiting to post one book club book review until after we meet this upcoming Friday, I feel like I don’t need to wait on Henry James’ What Maisie Knew. Like Maisie, I know exactly how I feel about James’ novel. We selected it as part of our “filling-in-the-gaps” choices, where we pick books that fill in some gap in reading we feel we should have done. None of us had read much of James (and I’d only read his ghost story, Turn of the Screw–chilling, terrifying, a must-read), so we settled on Maisie and her trials and tribulations through her parents’ scandalous, bitter, and public divorce.
Briefly, Maisie tells the story of Beale and Ida Farange’s divorce and use of their daughter, Maisie, as a pawn in their increasingly angry battle to hurt the other. Maisie is shuttled back and forth between houses as her father marries Maisie’s much-younger governness and her mother marries a young dandy, who ultimately is the most honest adult in her life. Not too long after the remarriages, Maisie’s step-parents begin an affair with each other, resulting in a trip to the coast of France where Maisie ultimately must decide which adult, including her stupid though doting first governess Mrs. Wix, she wants to go live with.
Oh my gosh, this is a slog. It is boring, repetitive, and not at all interesting. It basically consists of a conversation, usually filled with heighten emotion, between two adults that is observed by Maisie and then is rehashed by Maisie and one of the adults. Maisie always trys to understand what is going on while pretending that she really does understand and the adult always is purposefully vague and laughs at her attempts at “grown-up-ness”. This basic sequence is repeated every chapter for umpteen chapters, occasionally punctuated by a fit of hysterics by either Maisie’s mother or step-mother. These people are terrible, which is obviously the point, but Maisie is dull and unengaging, which makes the desire to engage with the events of the novel even less. The language is also quite dense, much denser than I remembered James being. Perhaps it is a particularly technique to help the reader feel as unbalanced as Maisie in navigating these complexities of adult life, but for me, it just made it hard for me to focus and connect with the page. This book is sooooooooooooo boring.
It really is an intersting concept, particularly for the early 20th century when it was written. James is not only looking at the generally taboo topics of sexual impropriety, divorce, quality of education, and parental irresponsibility in a rather blunt way, he is forcing these issues into the world of childhood innocence. AND it’s an American author making these observations about British society. It’s positively groundbreaking for early 20th century, and yet I just wanted it to be over.
I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I generally feel ok about putting a book down if I’m not into it, but I felt like I needed to persevere with this one. Maybe it was because we were reading it for book club, and I feel a sense of responsibility to my friends to finish what we read as best I can. But I had to make a deal with myself on this one: you can read Bill Bryson’s new book once you finish What Maisie Knew. Yes, the deal was to go from one American’s commentary on British society to another American’s commentary on British society, but the second one would be with a road trip, humor, and more stops for tea.
And so, I am terribly sorry, Mr. James, but I did not care for this novel. It does not mean I don’t care for you (again, all, read Turn of the Screw. You’ll be up all night.). However, I cannot in good conscience recommend What Maisie Knew unless you are looking for motivation to do something, really anything, else or a non-addictive sleep aid. (And to those of you who are a fan of James’ most somnolent work, my deepest apologies, and I hope you will come to his aid in defending him from my irritation.)