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The Death of the Heart Paperback – May 9, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

Five words of advice on reading Elizabeth Bowen: Resist the urge to skim. In The Death of the Heart, Bowen's writing rolls ever onward, accruing the sensations and ironies of conscious living till the final effect is massive. This is not prose for people who like their fiction with a cool, Calvin Klein-like minimalism. Bowen's people are keenly aware, and she seems to catalogue every sweaty moment, every betraying glance. The reader must stay right there with her, because hidden among lengthy descriptions of sea air and drawing-room politics are pithy asides worthy of great humorists: "Absence blots people out. We really have no absent friends." Skimmers miss out.

The Death of the Heart is Bowen's most perfectly made book. Portia, an orphan, comes to live in London with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna. A child of sin raised in a series of shabby French hotels, Portia is possessed of a kind of terrible innocence. Like Chance the Gardener in pigtails, she literally can't comprehend evil or unkind motives. Unfortunately for her, she falls in with Anna's friend Eddie, who seems to be made entirely of bad motives. Though the plot follows Portia's relationship with Eddie, the novel's real tension lies between Portia and Anna, as the girl comes to grief against the shoals of Anna's glittering, urbane cynicism. But the book transcends the theme of innocence corrupted. As in Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Bowen inverts the formula to show the destructive power of innocence itself:

Innocence so constantly finds itself in a false position that inwardly innocent people learn to be disingenuous.... Incurable strangers to the world, they never cease to exact a heroic happiness. Their singleness, their ruthlessness, their one continuous wish makes them bound to be cruel, and to suffer cruelty. The innocent are so few that two of them seldom meet--and when they do, their victims lie strewn all around.
Bowen has a fine eye for such shadings of morality, but finer still is her understanding of the way humans bump up against the material world. Her writing on weather, both emotional and meteorological, compares with the best of Henry James: "One's first day by the sea, one's being feels salt, strong, resilient, and hollow--like a seaweed pod not giving under the heel."

Always a sensitive observer of the way we live, in her lesser books Bowen deals in mind games and then delivers trumped-up, bloody endings. In The Death of the Heart, she keeps all the action between her characters' ears, and comes up with one of the great midcentury psychological novels. --Claire Dederer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"A witty, lucid, and beautiful psychological novel.. . . By far her best book."
--The New Yorker

"Bowen is a major writer. . . . She is what happened after Bloomsbury . . . the link that connects Virginia Woolf with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark."                                                                           --Victoria Glendinning

"Bowen writes with both art and skillful artifice. . . . [The] quality of restraint, of the unsaid, gives her novel its curious tautness and intensity."                                                                                --The New York Times

"[The Death of the Heart] manages to make a major statement about human character. . . . We finish the book with that sense fiction nowadays rarely communicates, of life's having been mysteriously enlarged."                                                                                    --The New Yorker

Product Details

  • Paperback: 418 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (May 9, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385720173
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385720175
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #119,780 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

75 of 77 people found the following review helpful By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 22, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
First off, let me say that the Anchor paperback edition is a pleasure to read, as are all the Bowen novels in this series. It has clean generous type, a binding that stays open, a cover that feels good in the hand, an attractive and totally relevant illustration, typography that captures both Bowen's elegance and her modernity, and -- wonder of wonders -- a back-cover blurb that brilliantly encapsulates the essence of this elusive novel. For example: "As she deftly and delicately exposes the cruelty that lurks behind the polished surfaces of conventional society, Bowen reveals herself as a masterful novelist who combines a sharp sense of humor with a devastating gift for divining human motivations."

Not for nothing does the book-jacket writer compare Elizabeth Bowen to Henry James. For this is a very Jamesian subject. The recently-orphaned 16-year-old Portia, Bowen's heroine, is significantly older than James' Maisie (WHAT MAISIE KNEW) and younger than his Isabel Archer (THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY), but like them she is thrust into sophisticated society as a naive observer, and the book is mainly taken up by the author's razor-sharp dissection of that society and sensitive exploration of the heroine's feelings.

What is surprising here, even in comparison to Henry James or to the other Elizabeth Bowen novels that I have read (THE LAST SEPTEMBER and
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68 of 75 people found the following review helpful By Amanda J Schick on July 15, 2002
Format: Paperback
I don't know what those who called this Bowen masterpiece "boring" expected of this novel. Perhaps they hoped for a simple, bland, beach-blanket novel they could skim in a day. I'm sure they were disappointed to find that this is an intense, at times intellectually difficult novel to read. Bowen's descriptions of the inner workings of an adolescent girl often require a second or third reading. This is not because her writing is dull or too enigmatic; it is because Bowen materializes the thoughts of an unconscious mind, thoughts that for some are difficult to understand because we do not realize we have them until they are before us on a white page. This is the genius of this novel; the poignancy of it is not in the plot but in Bowen's subtle display of humanity. This is not so much a novel as a psychological study, and it is brilliant. The simple-minded need not apply.
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40 of 43 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 4, 1999
Format: Paperback
An extraordinary book--far and away Bowen's best, and one of the most perfectly constructed novels of all time. Perhaps its most astonishing achievement is to show not only the devastating effects of experience upon innocence but also the seriously alarming and equally destructive effects true innocence can have in a world of experience. Anna's sophistication and coolness make her no less vulnerable than the fifteen year-old Portia, and I don't think anybody who's read it can ever forget Anna's great speech at the end of the novel about how she would feel if she were Portia, or the famous scene with Portia discovering she's been betrayed in the movie theater. It's also a very funny book: the sequences with Mrs. Heccomb and her children at Waikiki are hilarious. I heartily recommend this novel.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Talking about books on December 18, 2005
Format: Paperback
It feels perfectly ridiculous to be sitting here alloting stars to a writer as established in the firmament as Elizabeth Bowen. She is one of the great contemporary writers, and she was teaching when I was in college. We were too young to be in awe of her, but reading or especially rereading Bowen is one of the greatest pleasures of a lifetime. This is my favorite of her novels, but she hasn't written a single one I don't admire. Enjoy the winter with Bowen on hand!
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40 of 46 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 22, 2009
Format: Paperback
I have to admit that I read this critically acclaimed novel under some duress -- it was picked for my book group on the basis that it is one of our member's writing professor's favorite book. (It's also on the Modern Library and Time Magazine lists of Top 100 Novels, for whatever that's worth.) Unfortunately, I tend to like books with plots, and this is certainly not that -- it's more of a psychological portrait of a teenage girl as she undergoes the process of having her "innocence" utterly revoked by the social milieu she is thrust into.

Portia is a 16-year-old orphan sent to live with her half-brother and his cold and catty wife in their lovely Regency Park-fronting home in 1930s London. Having been raised in a succession of continental hotels (an experience Bowen herself had for about a decade, starting at age 12), she is wholly unprepared for the invisible and unspoken rules of the game operating in the upper-class English home she's entered. With her distant half-brother and cold sister-in-law, she struggles to locate some kind of human connection, and only manages to find it in unsuitable people such as an older head servant, or a dissolute young male "friend" of her sister-in-law (he's apparently based on the Welsh writer Goronwy Rees).

It is this latter relationship that inevitably leads to tears at the end, as her naive dreams are dashed by the self-absorption of everyone around her. It's all pretty bleak stuff, as there is not a single character in the book who lives in anything approaching happiness.
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