The Death of the Heart--Elizabeth Bowen

I would like to say that I postponed posting on this book out of courtesy to Nigeness who reported being in process.  But that simply isn't the case. I delayed posting because I didn't care for the book.  I wanted to be able to see why it had been placed on the "Best of the 20th Century list."  However, I couldn't.  But, then that is a matter of taste, and very likely, in my case, a matter of mood.  I didn't find the language compelling, nor did I really care much for the story--which seems to trace the history of a young woman who has recently become an orphan and is taken in by her half-brother and his wife.  She falls for a ne'er-do-well young man and spends the rest of the book in the entanglements that result from that. Her own predicament in the present is used to help cast the history of the sister-in-law in a somewhat different light. The novel seems to move at a snail's pace through various drawing rooms, dining rooms, tea shops, and parks.  The long winter that begins the novel, permeates the whole, giving us the sense of the death of the heart, the dashing of expectations, and something more. In some ways, I think Bowen may have been before her time, chronicling what I think must be the experience of many, if not most, young people now with our considerably diminished expectations of behavior.

Part of my problem was that I wasn't engaged on any level.  I didn't care for any of the characters except one who is the butt of everyone's jokes.  I didn't care for the pace of the development of the plot--I thought we could have lost a couple hundred pages without any great loss to the story.  And probably most importantly, I was not engaged by the language of the story telling.  It struck me as very workable prose with an Edwardian sensibility that approximated that of E. M. Forster without ever rising to its power or flexibility. 

I forced my way through this book in order to understand why it might have been selected as one of the best of the century.  And there is a way in which I can understand that--everything in this novel is below the surface--nothing of any importance seems to actually HAPPEN.  There is a visit to Europe by the adoptive half-brother accompanied by a visit to a seaside resort on the part of the heroine Portia.  During this visit, she makes the portentous, and ultimately foolish decision to invite the ne'er-do-well, and we end up with something approximating the mess of "Daisy Miller."  Although, that would be an overstatement.

The truth of the matter is that my reading of this book was probably much affected by my mood.  I had a dickens of a time (pardon the pun) launching myself at Room with a View, Brideshead Revisited, and any number of other works that I had subsequently come to love. And so it is possible that I just failed to engage intellectually with the author.  Perhaps another time would provide me with the key I would need to unlock the doors that this book seemed so fond of slamming in my face.

But I think there is more to it than that.  I just am not part of the Bowen sensibility--when I read her book, my mind is crowded with other things that push her whispered and highly nuanced conversation out of my head.  Perhaps Bowen is better for a less crowded, less rushed, less sensation-seeking part of life.  Perhaps it would be good to take on vacation when one intends nothing more of an evening than to sit by the fire and read long and involved books.

Because I'm so out of sorts in the matter, I will not rate the book--it would be unfair to the reader, to the Author, and to myself.  Moreover, it is unllikely to prove useful. For a more positive reaction, you may want to check out what Nigeness had to say in the matter.


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