This novel is mostly about four people. Adam Verver is a fabulously wealthy American who is a collector of rare and fine objects and art. Maggie is his daughter. Maggie becomes engaged to Prince Amerigo. The Prince is a member of Italian royalty but he has no money. Before he knew Maggie, the Prince has fallen in love with a young woman named Charlotte Stant. The pair broke off their romance due to the fact that they were both poor. It turns out that Maggie and Charlotte are old childhood friends. At the time of the marriage neither Maggie nor her father know of The Prince and Charlotte’s earlier affair. Shortly before the wedding, The Prince and Charlotte go in search for a wedding gift for Maggie. Though they do not buy it, they come across a crystal bowl that is finely wrought but cracked. The bowl, which the novel takes its name from, becomes very important in terms of both plot and symbolism. A few years into the first marriage, Adam Verver proposes and marries Charlotte.
The proximately is too much for the ex – lovers and The Prince and Charlotte eventually take up an affair with each other. Eventually Maggie discovers the liaison. As is typical of James’s characters, she communicates her knowledge to her unfaithful husband in a subtle way and quietly makes it known to him that she expects the affair to end. One of her prime motivations is aimed at preventing her father from finding out about the unfaithfulness of his spouse. All this is presented very slowly and very subtly.
The most important thing to say about this book, as I mentioned above, is the way that it delves in to the minds and actions of its characters. This is a deep and meticulous dive into the motivations and psychology of people. I would estimate that about 70% of the pages of this book are dedicated to this examination. Many other books are deep psychological studies. In fact, James himself has written other novels that dug into things in a similar way. It is the degree that this bookwork does these things that makes it so distinctive. I have read The Portrait of a Lady and The Turning of the Screw previously. Both those works displayed some if these characteristics, but not to the extent that this book does. In fact, nothing else that I have ever read comes close to the detailed examinations of life that James pulls off here. This makes this book a unique and special work of art.
Something that goes along with all this is the complexity and unexpected aspects to the characters themselves. There is a sense that both Maggie and her father found partners partially because of their great wealth. I would have been easy for James to have portrayed them as unpleasant characters in order to illustrate this. However, on the contrary, they are very appealing people. They are thoughtful, kind and show absolutely no arrogance despite their wealth. In the end, though their wealth was used as kind of a hook to find partners, they are still attractive despite the riches. To me, this is complexity.
The characters are different and complex in other ways too. At one point Maggie is considering that fact that she does not have strong feelings of jealousy,
She might fairly, as she watched them, have missed it as a lost thing; have yearned for it, for the straight vindictive view, the rights of resentment, the rages of jealousy, the protests of passion, as for something she had been cheated of not least: a range of feelings which for many women would have meant so much, but which for her husband’s wife, for her father’s daughter, figured nothing nearer to experience than a wild eastern caravan, looming into view with crude colours in the sun, fierce pipes in the air, high spears against the sky, all a thrill, a natural joy to mingle with, but turning off short before it reached her and plunging into other defiles.
The above quotation is typical of much of the book. This analysis and introspection builds layers upon layers of complexity into James’s characters. As I mention above, the reactions and motivations of these characters are often unusual. This is exemplified by the fact that while bothered by her husband’s and friend’s affair, Maggie is really not jealous.
The nature of the relationships are also unusual. Maggie and Charlotte are childhood friends. The fact that Charlotte marries Maggie’s father and technically becomes her step - mother is odd and the characters even mention that it disconcerts them a little. The fact that the unfaithful pair had fallen in love and wanted to marry in the past is also something that is not common in stories of infidelity. Maggie and her father also have an unconventionally close relationship and both her them neglect their respective spouses as a result.
James’s sentence structure is unusual and can be called awkward. Admittedly, I did not really know enough about writing to describe exactly why James’s sentences are so difficult, aside from the fact that they tend to be long. However, a little reading online indicates that many find him difficult because he uses subordinate clauses to excess.
The above quotation is one example. Another occurs when The Prince is contemplating his position in English society.
He found it convenient, oddly, even for his relation with himself—though not unmindful that there might still, as time went on, be others, including a more intimate degree of that one, that would seek, possibly with violence, the larger or the finer issue—which was it?—of the vernacular.
To ease oneself into a book like this, a reader might want to start with The Portrait of a Lady or another James entry first. This may help assist reader with the unconventional prose style, as well as the novel's other peculiarities.
This is a unique book for the reasons mentioned above. The deep and intricate musings are very interesting. It lends itself to slow and patient reading. Along with the depths that James plumbs here, the the book is a fascinating look at a handful of complex characters and relationships. However, I would only recommend reading this is one were prepared first. Folks going into this should not expect a plot driven story. Instead, it is a slow read about people. One also needs to be ready for James’s prose style. For those who are prepared for this, I would strongly recommend this as an original work of art that is like no other book that I have read.