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Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
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A-MasterIn 1895, Henry James left the theater in distress, beset with self-doubt over his play. For the next five years, he experienced both deep failures and great triumphs, including publication of Portrait of a Lady and "Turn of the Screw," which fashioned his reputation as one of the great chroniclers of late 19th–century society. In this fictionalized biography, Tóibín traverses the writer’s life, from his sister’s death to his unresolved sexual identity and decision to study rather than fight in the Civil War. Instead of embracing life, James remained emotionally distant, transforming his relationships with intelligent but unhappy young women into figures like Daisy Miller. "I have come as close as I could," James wrote about himself, "as near as I dared"—a fitting summation of his life.
Scribner. 338 pages. $25. ISBN: 0743250400

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement—one of many—is the gentle understatement it employs to connect James’ personal uncertainties at mid-career to a broader shift in the literary current at the turn of the century. … The story’s greater energy lies in the linkage that Tóibín forges among James’s emotional and physical exile, the subjects of his novels, and certain key episodes in his past." Justin Cronin

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Superbly controlled and suffused with an autumnal air of perseverance despite all blows, this novel is a masterful, unshowy meditation on work, ambition, friendship, longing and mortality." Maureen N. McLane

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The Master is unquestionably the work of a first-rate novelist—one who has for the past decade been writing excellent novels about people cut off from their feelings or families or both." Daniel Mendelsohn

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"… an enchanting and well-researched piece of literary fan fiction that is sure to bring a spot of pink delight to the cheeks of English professors everywhere. … Though it is certainly fictionalized, this is a novel that can join the Henry James biographical canon as its own sort of reckoning." Chelsea Cain

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"… Tóibín creates an illusion of getting newly under James’ skin that even his best biographers haven’t managed. … The best thing about The Master, however, isn’t its technical prowess but how very alive its James is." Michael Upchurch

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"… The Master might almost be viewed as an extreme example of what the French call the vie romancée, a highly embellished form of biography that goes beyond austere scholarship to adopt the exuberance and methods of fiction." Michael Dirda

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Master is a superbly researched and nuanced portrait that could have the happy effect of sending some of its readers back to the master himself." Heller McAlpin

Critical Summary

The Master may not elevate James to the status achieved by Virginia Woolf in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, but it’s a remarkable accomplishment. Most readers, regardless of their familiarity with James’s work, will appreciate its timeless themes, including war, family, character, and ambition, and graceful, evocative prose. Tóibín (Blackwater Lightship) offers a humane portrait of the writer in middle age, ambitious and mentally energetic but emotionally aloof. Though focused on five years, he captures all stages of James’s life, from his Yankee childhood and European young adulthood to middle-aged angst. Sometimes Tóibín veers too much into fantasy, mixing up his and James’s voices; at other points, more imagination could have animated the text. Yet, there’s no doubt that The Master is the work of—well, another kind of master.

Supplemental Reading

AS-HenryJamesLifeHenry James A Life | Leon Edel (1987): An abridged version of Edel’s award-winning five-volume biography of America’s "one fully achieved literary artist."

AS-HoursThe Hours | Michael Cunningham (1999): A Pulitzer-Prize winning novel that follows a day in the life of three women living decades apart but linked by common hopes and fears: Virginia Woolf, a post-World War II housewife, and a modern "Mrs. Dalloway."