78 of 80 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tough As It Gets, But Worth the Monumental Effort
THE AMBASSADORS demands more effort and concentration from the reader than probably any other novel written by an American. But the payoff is worth the effort, however we may begrudge James' frustratingly and intentionally thick prose. James does indeed describe intense human situations in great depth and detail: duty, honor, nostalgia; the contrast between the...
Published on January 5, 2000 by oh_pete
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More Matter And Less Art
I love Henry James, and generally find his novels worth the admittedly stenuous effort, but here there just isn't enough going on to justify the required time and effort. The central character is sympathetic in a pale sort of way, but he's not very interesting or perceptive, and this lack of perception becomes irritating when the whole novel is written from his point of...
Published on November 7, 2000 by Jim McKenna
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78 of 80 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tough As It Gets, But Worth the Monumental Effort,
THE AMBASSADORS demands more effort and concentration from the reader than probably any other novel written by an American. But the payoff is worth the effort, however we may begrudge James' frustratingly and intentionally thick prose. James does indeed describe intense human situations in great depth and detail: duty, honor, nostalgia; the contrast between the starchy-collared stiffness of Brahmin Boston (read: America) contrasted with the joie de vivre of Paris (read: Europe); how difficult certain of life's choices can be. These are just a few themes that make this book worthwhile. James' America is young and trying to assert itself (and so takes itself too seriously); his Europe is old and satisfied (and perhaps doesn't take itself seriously enough).
Lambert Strether, a fiftysomething turn-of-the-20th-century bourgeois Bostonian gentleman on an aristocratic lady's errand--she will not marry him until he convinces her son Chad to return to Massachusetts. We see his struggle with his uncomfortable position when he realizes Chad is no longer a spoiled young prep-schooler, but a young gentleman of increasing refinement and self-awareness. And if Strether is anything, by the way, he is one of the most supremely self-aware characters in literary history. Once that Paris air starts to play its magic with Strether himself, we are off to the races. Keeping in mind, of course, that with James' prose we are racing with tortoises. James invites us to ponder how many chances a person truly gets in this life to reinvent his or her self? And if we get the chance, do we always take it? How much should we weigh the consequences before we decide? How much are we willing to accept them after we have chosen?
For similar themes with clearer, faster-paced, and wittier prose, try Edith Wharton's marvelous homage to James, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Aesthetic Triumph,
This review is from: The Ambassadors (Library Binding)
This is a novel about a man named Strether, who is as obviously an alter ego of Henry James as Ralph Touchett is of Mr. James in Portrait of A Lady or, to jump continents and switch authors, the main character in Remembrance of Things Past is of Proust. Strether is in Paris to retrieve his (hopefully?) future son-in-law Chad from the wiles of the City of Light and return him to New England so that Strether can marry, settle down and pass his waning years in Puritan New England (New England was still Puritan at the time.). At least, that's the plan. But once Strether arrives, something happens to him, and that mysterious something is what makes this work great. One could easily sum it up and say that Strether becomes enraptured by beauty, and one would be quite right. But to do so would be to miss the point....What is beauty? This is the question the novel essentially asks, all plotting and sub-plotting (and plenty of it) aside. Strether's paralysis because of his inability to grasp what is holding him there and why he becomes one of the greatest procrastinators in English literature (not excepting a certain Danish prince) is the great theme around which all else revolves. Strether is essentially a sensitive, cultured man with hyper-refined sensibilities. Alighting in Paris from the drab New England factory town awakens things in him that can only be perceived through the mind's eye of such a man. He is a sort of Geiger counter which registers things missed by others not so equipped (i.e., the rest of the characters.) "Strether had not for years so rich a consciousness of time-a bag of gold into which he constantly dipped for a handful." Ch.6 The beginning of Ch. 16 has a beautifully succinct line of his predicament, "How could he wish it to be lucid for others, for any one, that he, for the hour, saw reasons enough in the mere way the bright, clean, ordered water-side life came in at the open window?" Reasons, that is, to stay in beloved Paris. The denouement of the struggle between this sensibility and his deeply engrained New England morality becomes really beside the point. All the tergiversations and multiple reflections and subtle dialogue that convey the consciousness of a great soul constitute the book's undisputed prominence. I came away from the novel asking myself anew the question raised by Plato and other great philosophers and artists throughout history: What is beauty? What is the mysterious hold it has on us? And why do those who feel its power most acutely, such as Strether, suffer the most?
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Ambassadors: Worlds In Conflict & Readers In Conflict,
This review is from: The Ambassadors (Paperback)
If one were to choose just one novel from Henry James and say that this one is the quintessential example of a work that combines theme and style, one could do worse than to choose THE AMBASSADORS. James had a fascination with yanking Americans from their new world padded cells of insulation and transporting them to Europe, an old world that simply reeked of style and long held cultural givens. Lambert Strether is the ambassador of the title, an American who has grown up with typical American values, most of which relate to the Jamesian belief (often incorrect and exaggerated) that Americans were a breed of money mad social cretins who would not recognize class if they bumped into it. At the beginning of the novel, Strether is depicted as a basically good-hearted man who exists--but does not live--at least in the sense that he later comes to understand. It is he who is sent to London to retrieve a wayward Chad Newsome, a fellow American, son of the immensely wealthy Mrs. Newsome, who is eager for her son to return to America to take his rightful place as heir to the family fortune. In Europe, Strether is the fish out of water--at first. His job is to convert Chad or at least retrieve him from what Mrs. Newsome considers the clutches of a dissipated anti-Puritan and lascivious culture. But the conversion works in reverse. Lambert is affected by the openness of the European lifestyle, which compares refreshingly favorably to an American lifestyle that he now views as ponderous and stifling. He is further affected by a growing closeness with the target of his journey, Chad, a man that his mother assured Strether needed saving, but the only saving that Chad needs is to be saved from having to return to an America that will surely destroy Chad's new-found soul just as surely as it had stifled Strether's. Strether is finally affected by his relation with Mme. Marie de Vionnet, a lovely, elegant, and older European woman who is the girlfriend of Chad. This woman is another in a long line of Jamesian old-world icons of feminine exoticism who can seemingly float in mid air, so appealing is her capacity for infinite variety. Lambert concludes that she is RIGHT for Chad. Further, Europe is RIGHT for Chad, and finally, America is WRONG for Chad as well. By extension, Lambert learns the same lessons for himself. If he remains in Europe, he will suffer considerable sacrifice, not the least of which is that he has considered marrying Chad's mother, who suggests that at the successful conclusion to Lambert's journey, she will marry him, thus assuring him a share of her wealth. When Lambert delays in his mission, Mrs. Newsome sends yet another set of ambassadors, Chad's sister and her husband, both of whom prove invulnerable to the charms of Europe. Ironically, James shows that in the disreputable actions of the two in Europe (both engage in some tawdry behavior like drunken American sailors in a seedy Parisian saloon), that true class is a state of mind and not a function of where one hangs one's hat. At the end of the novel, James does not definitively wrap up all the loose ends. Presumably, Chad will eventually return to America--or perhaps not. Lambert will probably remain in Europe--or again perhaps not. Clearly, in THE AMBASSADORS, James leaves the door deliberately and ambiguously open, so that the resolution may need some unfolding after the words "the end."
Just as Henry James sets up a collision of cultural worlds in crisis, so does he do with a parallel collision of style in crisis. Many readers complain that James' style--ornate, ponderous, excessively prone to mutlti-pages of interminable dialogue--simply will not let them read a book that to them needs more plowing than reading. The problem here is that such readers have been taught to read conventional novels of slam-bang action, Hemingway-esque dialogue, and rapid pacing. In THE AMBASSADORS, James explores a different universe. His universe is the microverse, one is which most of the action is internalized. James wishes to unveil conscience and the intricacies of human dynamics. One might almost argue that the events in THE AMBASSADORS occur in real time. If it seems to take days to read, then perhaps that is the way that events occur in the fictional construct of any Jamesian novel. To read Henry James is to reread him as well. Just as human beings pause to use their memories of significant events to consider what to do for the future, so must the reader pause to reread passages to ponder past events. Thus, Henry James is one of the few authors (Proust is another) who has melded content to style. One does not read James merely to satisfy the requirements of a college class on the novel. One rereads James after the college class is over, and it is only then that one discovers the beauty of exploring the infinitely more beautiful world of the inner landscape over the outer.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars New England provinciality meets Parisian charm,
This review is from: Ambassadors (School & Library Binding)
Was there any American more European than Henry James? "The Ambassadors" begins in England and takes place mostly in Paris, and even though most of its characters are American, it is only referentially concerned with its author's native country. At the same time, the novel is not about Americans frivolously sowing their wild oats in exotic ancestral lands, but rather how they use their new settings to break away from restrictive American traditions and conventions and redefine their values and standards of living.
The main character is a late-middle-aged widower named Lambert Strether who edits a local periodical in the town of Woollett, Massachussetts, and is a sort of factotum for a wealthy industrialist's widow named Mrs. Newsome, a woman he may possibly marry. Strether's latest assignment from Mrs. Newsome is to go to Paris to convince her son, Chad, to give up what she assumes is a hedonistic lifestyle and return to Woollett to marry a proper, respectable young lady, his brother-in-law's sister to be specific. There is a greater ulterior motive, too -- the prosperity of the family business relies on Chad's presence.
In Paris, Strether finds that Chad has surrounded himself with a more stimulating group of friends, including a mousy aspiring painter named John Little Bilham, and that he is in love with an older, married woman named Madame de Vionnet. Providing companionship and counsel to Strether in Paris are his old friend, a retired businessman named Waymarsh, and a woman he met in England, named Maria Gostrey, who happens to be an old schoolmate of the Madame's. When it appears that Strether is failing in his mission to influence Chad, Mrs. Newsome dispatches her daughter and son-in-law, Jim and Sarah (Newsome) Pocock, and Jim's marriageable sister Mamie, to Paris to apply pressure. Ultimately, Strether, realizing that he's blown his chances with Mrs. Newsome and that Chad has the right idea anyway, finds himself enjoying the carefree life in Paris, which has liberated him from his lonely, stifling existence in Woollett.
Not having cared much for James's previous work "The Wings of the Dove," I felt something click with "The Ambassadors." Maybe it's because I found the story a little more absorbing and could empathize with Strether; maybe it's because my reading skills are maturing and I'm learning to appreciate James's dense, oblique prose style. I realize now that, for all the inherent difficulty in his writing, literature took a giant step forward with Henry James; if the Novel is, as he claimed, "the most independent, most elastic, most prodigious of literary forms," it takes a writer like James to show us how.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great, but,
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The Ambassadors is a novel that unravels itself continuously and feels in many ways like a mystery, yet nothing in the novel occurs in the way of crime or even baseness. Every other great novel I've read has dealt, in one way or another, with some weighty issue or theme; I feel The Ambassadors does not. Despite this I found myself mesmerized by its intricacies, its perpetual ability to surprise; yet I also frequently asked myself whether I cared enough about its subject matter to continue. In the preface James tells the reader that it's about a man who, late in life, reflects on what he's missed in his youth, and the possibility of recapturing it. This man, the main character, is Strether, who has been sent to Paris to bring back to New England the son of a wealthy widow he hopes to marry; if he fails to do so, his engagement falls through and the son loses a large chunk of his inheritance. The mission is viewed somewhat as a rescue since the son is believed to be ensnared in the throes of either an unsuitable woman or a dissipate lifestyle, or both. Europe, and especially Paris, awakens latent feelings in the provincial Strether, and what he discovers in Paris turns out to be full of surprises for him. Beyond this, I don't think it matters much what the novel is about - it seems to me that the broader one outlines it, the less palatable it appears. The novel is very subtle, and definitely the most dense and tedious of any I have read. I find the characters to be so intelligent and flawless in their manners that they become intimidating, oppressively so. I don't care about the outcome for any of them because I feel they lack humanity. It's as if regular people did not figure into James's universe. However, I do feel that, in technical terms, it is the most perfect novel I have read, and therefore deserves to be ranked among the greatest ever.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars dense yet worthwhile,
Another tough Henry James read still contains his best leading character> In fact, all the characters here are well drawn, even ones you never meet, like Mrs. Newsome, who is strictly an indirect background force. James always wrote very piercing stories of moral and romantic conflict and this one, vague and hard as the langauge can be, is no exception. Despite the narrative's thickness, you can't helped but be awed by how a master can re-arrange the English tongue to sound this beautiful. You will feel every inch of being in Paris here, and, as well, the frustration and confusion of every lost soul in the story. Even the scared conformist characters are vividly drawn. Another amazing effort by a writer who isn't always easy to dissect. Requires more than a brief sit thru. Stick with it, you will feel like you've lived the book yourself.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Extremely complex, mental gymnastics,
I have read thousands of books, and others by James, but this one was very exasperating. I appreciate what James is capable of doing but does he have to mentally banter with the reader to such a degree? If I had written such prose in college they would have been torn to pieces by my professors. Nevertheless I absolutely am in awe of James and his ability to create an environment and subdued tension between characters. Europe, in the last century, was never presented so correctly by any other writer with the possible exception of Proust. Demanding reading. Its effects will become evident to you in bits and pieces of your daily life, weeks or months after you have read the last page. (Read his brother William for additional enlightment into the James' mind)
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I loved reading this book!,
I had some difficulty at first, getting the rhythm of his writing, but once I got it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is a novel about an American from Woollett, Massachusetts, named Lambert Strether, who sets out for Europe for the purpose of fetching his fiancée's, Mrs. Newsome's, son Chadwick Newsome, from the supposed clutches of an inappropriate liaison with a French woman, Madame Marie de Vionnet, and her daughter, Mademoiselle Jeanne de Vionnet. Other characters include Mr. Strether's longtime friend, Mr. Waymarsh, a new acquaintance, Maria Gostrey, Mrs. Newsome's daughter, Mrs. Sarah Pocock, her husband James Pocock, and Chad's intended bride-to-be, Miss Mamie Pocock. The Ambassadors of the title of the novel seem to be the group of Sarah, Jim and Mamie, who come to Europe later with the purpose of fetching Mr. Strether back for Mrs. Newsome. What occurs is a trial of manners and propriety with Mr. Strether encouraging Chad to stay on in Paris, France, with the advice of living life to the fullest rather than going back to America to a life of boredom and a stale marriage. I enjoyed reading the book itself, and I would greatly recommend this to others!
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best of James, one of the best in the world,
This review is from: The Ambassadors (Kindle Edition)
This is flat out one of the greatest novels ever written, and it's more fun than any of James's other novels, too. It's nice that he thought such a pleasant book was his best.
If the style is too much for you, wait till you can handle it. On the other hand, if you start out as I did fifty years ago with liking the puzzle and getting a kick out of it, then as you keep coming back it will get clearer and clearer. Meanwhile, on my fourth reread, I'm tremendously enjoying the humor on every page of the first three sections.
Check this out: "Waymarsh had smoked of old, smoked hugely; but Waymarsh did nothing now, and that gave him the advantage over people who took things up lightly just when others had laid them heavily down."
Meanwhile, be advised: the theme, "Live all you can," is laid out openly in the fifth of twelve sections, and is totally present from Section One. Maybe Paris isn't as bad as Americans think it is -- yes, that's the comic point, but it's not what the book builds up to; it's what the book starts out from. We are given the comedy of American Puritanism versus Parisian High Culture right from the start ... and THEN what happens? That's the mystery and charm of the book.
And it couldn't be more charming.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Narration via nuanced indirection,
By A Customer
James' novel affected me in part because I also fell in love with Paris, though not with a Parisian. The sinuous, difficult prose provides the perfect vehicle for the adventures of aging Lambert Strether as he goes to Paris to try to recover a New England son who will not return to his domineering mother and take a role in the family business--manufacturing an article that is never named. In Europe he meets a degree of sophistication he had never known but also a jungle of moral ambivalences. If I gave the novel only four stars, it is not because of the difficult prose, which I sometimes cursed, but because the crucial instance of moral turpitude which he describes seems practically banal now. I once bundled up all my Henry James books in a fit of pique and was on the way to taking them to a library book sale, but thought better of it. And it was a better thought.
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The Ambassadors (Second Edition) (Norton Critical Editions) by Henry James (Paperback - February 17, 1994)