A deeply exhaustive examination of the stresses on a marriage, this novel depicts the complications between two sets of couples and the sacrifices and occasional moral compromises required to keep those relationships from collapsing. The novel opens on Prince Amerigo and Charlotte Stant out shopping for a wedding gift for Amerigo's soon-to-be-bride, Maggie Verver. Amerigo is a poor nobleman who has survived on his charm and looks, while Maggie is the sole heir to her father's vast fortunes. Charlotte is Maggie's oldest friend. Unbeknownst to Maggie, Charlotte and Amerigo are former lovers, which never resulted in marriage because Charlotte is also poor. And the irony is that it took this wedding, in London, to reunite them once again.
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They flirt as they continue their search for a gift and soon stumble on a curious little shop where the Jewish owner attempts to sell them a beautiful antique golden bowl. The anti-Semitic Amerigo doesn't trust the Jewish owner, and suspects that there must be something wrong with the otherwise perfect bowl. They buy nothing and leave empty-handed.
The wedding itself goes off without a hitch, but Maggie, as an only child, has always been extremely close with her widowed father and now worries that with her out of the house he will become lonely. In order to prevent this, she convinces him to marry Charlotte. Neither Maggie nor her father know about Charlotte's past (and possibly continuing) relationship with Amerigo. Oblivious, he proposes to Charlotte. She accepts based on the prospects of his vast wealth, and they are married in turn. As a superficially perfect foursome, they spend more and more time together. But this has the side effect of allowing Charlotte and Amerigo to deepen their own connections to one another, and soon even Maggie begins to suspect the true nature of their relationship. Maggie convinces herself, though, that she's just being paranoid.
Then one day she happens to visit the same shop with the Jewish owner. Maggie sees the golden bowl and buys it on the spot. Later, though, the Jewish owner feels guilty over the high price he charged her for it, and decides to visit her at home to apologize and offer her some of her money back. While there, he recognizes Amerigo and Charlotte in photos around the house and tells her about their flirtatious behavior in his shop. Faced with this affirmation of her suspicions, Maggie confronts Amerigo with the truth. She is determined, though, to save her marriage and keep her father from being devastated by the truth of his new wife's infidelities with his daughter's husband.
What follows is some seriously subtle maneuvering on Maggie's part to keep Charlotte away from Amerigo without ever letting either Charlotte or her father know about the affair. This has the effect of causing Amerigo to reappraise his wife's intellect. While he married her for her money, he now realizes she is so much more and he feels a renewed admiration and love for her, and he knows now that he made a massive mistake having an affair with the beautiful but stupid Charlotte. The novel ends with Maggie's father, at Maggie's subtle insistence, preparing to take Charlotte with him back to America. Her father suspects the truth himself, but he respects his daughter's efforts to save his marriage, as well as her own, and he goes along with her plan. Both marriages are saved – for now. But there are strong implications that this kind of deft maneuvering will be required again in the future, if she wants to stay married.
Best part of story, including ending:
James' psychological analysis of Maggie's dilemma is unsurprisingly brilliant and fascinating, but the novel suffers from two fatal flaws: 1) it is far, far too long for the narrative it contains, and 2) I personally never felt that Amerigo was worth anything at all, which meant the marriage wasn't worth saving, which renders all of Maggie's efforts to save that marriage, however noble, ultimately pointless to me.
Best scene in story:
The scene where Maggie convinces her father to take Charlotte and return to America is remarkably nuanced and well-done. Here we see her desperate love for her father and her overwhelming desire to spare him any hurt, but we also see a subtle hint from him that he knows precisely what she is doing, and he loves her enough not to let on that he knows, since this would cause her pain to know that he might be in pain, and she herself might suspect that he knows, but if he wants to pretend that he doesn't maybe there's a reason for this....and on and on. James creates a scene rich enough to support analysis to such obscene depths.
Opinion about the main character:
Again, aside from the fact that I think Maggie falling in love with Amerigo AT ALL and wanting to save her marriage to him AT ALL renders her entirely pathetic -- I found her charming and witty and worth far more than her marriage to Amerigo could possibly provide.