I thought I might fall in love with this book, and it turns out I didn’t, but I don’t want to hold that against it. It is a very good novel; I’m glad I read it, and I’d like to read more Bowen. There’s something cold about the book, though, that made me admire more than love it. Its subject matter is rather depressing, and although I generally like depressing books, this one … well, it left me sad and didn’t dazzle me in a way that would make me feel better. But, really, I do admire it, and I believe I don’t need to fall in love with a book to recognize that it’s quite good.
It’s a story of lost innocence; Portia, a 16-year-old girl who is newly-orphaned comes to live with her much older half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, and while she is there she learns some harsh lessons about the world. Her new family doesn’t really want here there; they took her in because it was Portia’s dying father’s request and because it seemed like the right thing to do. But Anna particularly resents having Portia in her home — the opening scene reveals that Anna has secretly read Portia’s diary and found that Portia has written some unflattering things about her and her friends. It’s as though Anna feels like she is competing with Portia; we learn that Anna had a love affair when she was much younger that ended disappointingly and it’s implied that Anna has never really recovered — now she sees Portia with her youth and beauty and attractiveness and resents the life she has ahead of her.
Portia meets a young friend of Anna’s named Eddie and the plot gets more complicated from there. The two quickly begin a relationship, but this relationship means something quite different for each of them. Portia in all her innocence believes she has fallen in love, but it’s clear that Eddie is merely interested in having some fun.
Poor Portia. She doesn’t fit in anywhere, and she clings to Eddie as the one she feels she can trust the most. She attends what sounds like a dreadful school and makes one friend there, but this friend doesn’t really satisfy, and she only gets in trouble while trying to make it through the school day. In the book’s second section, Anna and Thomas head off to France and leave Portia behind at the house of Anna’s old governess. Here, too, Portia feels like an outsider, and when she invites Eddie to visit her there, events head in a direction she never anticipated.
It’s Portia’s innocence that causes so much trouble, or, rather, it’s the world around her that causes the trouble, not knowing what to do with her innocence. Portia isn’t trained to deal with proper London society or with boys who make rash promises or with the isolation she endures. Anna and Thomas live dull, sterile lives; they have carefully cordoned themselves off from any real interaction with other people or even with each other:
Callers were unheard of at Windsor Terrace. They had been eliminated; they simply did not occur. The Quaynes’ [Thomas and Anna’s] home life was as much their private life as though their marriage had been illicit. Their privacy was surrounded by an electric fence — friends who did not first telephone did not come.
In this atmosphere Portia dries up; it’s no wonder she turns to other people, even harmful people, to try to find some liveliness and love.
Bowen is very much interested in psychological states. The back cover describes her style as Jamesian, and I think that claim holds true; Bowen describes her characters’ inner lives in depth, capturing the ebb and flow of their feelings and responses. It’s a thoughtful book, one that moves slowly — although not in a way that might bore — and tells its story with pleasing thoroughness. If you like books with emotional and psychological insight — ones that capture the complexity of character, then you may like this book.