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The Master Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 25, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It's a bold writer indeed who dares to put himself inside the mind of novelist Henry James, but that is what Tóibín, highly talented Irish author of The Heather Blazing and The Blackwater Lightship, has ventured here, with a remarkable degree of success. The book is a fictionalized study, based on many biographical materials and family accounts, of the novelist's interior life from the moment in London in 1895 when James's hope to succeed in the theater rather than on the printed page was eclipsed by the towering success of his younger contemporary Oscar Wilde. Thereafter the book ranges seamlessly back and forth over James's life, from his memories of his prominent Brahmin family in the States-including the suicide of his father and the tragic early death of his troubled sister Alice-to his settling in England, in a cherished house of his own choosing in Rye. Along the way it offers hints, no more, of James's troubled sexual identity, including his fascination with a young English manservant, his (apparently platonic) night in bed with Oliver Wendell Holmes and his curious obsession with a dashing Scandinavian sculptor of little talent but huge charisma. Another recurrent motif is James's absorption in the lives of spirited, highly intelligent but unhappy young women who die prematurely, which helped to inform some of his strongest fiction. The subtlety and empathy with which Tóibín inhabits James's psyche and captures the fleeting emotional nuances of his world are beyond praise, and even the echoes of the master's style ring true. Far more than a stunt, this is a riveting, if inevitably somewhat evasive, portrait of the creative life.
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From Bookmarks Magazine

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.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1st Scribner Ed edition (May 25, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743250400
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743250405
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (140 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #560,095 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Colm Toibin is the author of four previous novels, The South, The Heather Blazing, The Story of the Night, and The Blackwater Lightship, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize. He lives in Dublin.

Customer Reviews

The novel is beautifully and sensitively written, very detailed and engaging.
Joan M. Hall
I bought and read this novel, not so much because it's about Henry James as that is is written by Colm Toibin, one of my favorite contemporary writers.
H. F. Corbin
All of the events of the novel are really psychological events, and most occur at a very subtle level.
Daniel Davy

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

167 of 173 people found the following review helpful By H. F. Corbin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 12, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought and read this novel, not so much because it's about Henry James as that is is written by Colm Toibin, one of my favorite contemporary writers. I am certainly no authority on Mr. James, having read only two of his novels-- many years ago-- both required in an English course, THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY and THE TURN OF THE SCREW. Having finished this fine novel, however, I'm encouraged to read more James, particularly his letters and maybe a biography about him. Mr. Toibin's novel has the flavor and nuances, as best I can recall, of a Henry James novel, no small accomplishment. Toibin's James, though a bit like Eliot's Prufrock, is nevertheless a likable person and not so different from a lot of people I know. His sexuality is repressed, he has friendships with women whom he doesn't want to get too close to, he is the second child in a family of brilliant people-- William James being his older brother-- his father drinks too much, his beloved sister Alice suffers from emotional problems, he is attracted to men but doesn't act on his feelings, he is cowed by alcoholic servants, and he has a pushy woman friend from whom he has to hid a tapestry he has bought for his home because she told him he shouldn't purchase it. On the other hand, Toibin's James takes comfort in writing, in decorating a new home in Rye-- and while he sometimes may be lonely-- often enjoys solitude, something altogether different. "He loved the glorious silence a morning brought, knowing that he had no appointments that afternoon and no engagements that evening. He had grown fat on solitude, he thought, and had learned to expect nothing from the day but at best a dull contentment."
James through Toibin has poignant observations about life and death.
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63 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Colm Toibin's fine novel THE MASTER is an act of art in and of itself. This is a well-researched biography of one of America's greatest novelists but it is also a novel, a great work of literature that sifts through all the extant data found in the copious letters between Henry James and his brother (the equally famous William James) and others of his family and acquaintances, other biographies, and the vast writings about this extraordinary family . But what Toibin has achieved is more a dissection of the mind of a man who produced so many great books, showing us the gradual development of influences that, once digested, became such great books as 'The Turn of the Screw', 'The Portrait of a Lady', 'Washington Square', etc. THE MASTER opens with the expatriate James' embarrassing failure as a playwright ('Guy Domville') while his compatriot Oscar Wilde is enjoying tremendous success in another nearby London theater. This parallel plays significantly throughout the novel as a point of reference for James' periods of self doubt, fear of his own like sexual longings that ended Wilde's career in a famous trial, his odd transplantation from America to the United Kingdom and Italy, etc. Toibin's novel (by inference of his chapter titles) takes place from 1895 to 1899, but using the flashback and flash forward technique we are privy to the whole history of the James family (the premiere intellectual family in the latter 19th century), Henry's childhood and avoidance of serving in the Civil War, and all of the famous people who surrounded him (and at times slept with him in the case of Oliver Wendell Holmes).Read more ›
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95 of 107 people found the following review helpful By B. Capossere TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 3, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The Master is one of those books you just hate yourself for not liking more. There's the guilt of not enjoying a book about a "Great Writer", the guilt of not enjoying a book despite its beautiful writing, the guilt over not liking a "year's best" book, etc. But the truth is, The Master, while an enjoyable read, wasn't a particularly enjoyable story.

I love books where "nothing really happens", but in this case, it really felt like nothing was happening, in the book or in the reader's mind. I could appreciate the book on all sorts of intellectual levels: it is beautifully written in many places, the structure (an episodic tour of James' relationships that never became relationships) is well-paced and well-balanced, Toibin himself is a "master" at the small, quiet scenes of character and poignant action (or inaction). And I like the whole setup of revealing a man's character through a web of interactions with others, especially one whose interactions are so passive. But emotionally the book never had an impact. And the story never grabbed me, or even tugged at the sleeve. It was, admittedly, a struggle to finish it and I read several other books while doing so.

One needn't have read James' to follow the book, though certainly it adds a richness to the text if one has some familiarity. For those who do not, Toibin does a decent job of giving thumbnail sketches of stories and novels, though sometimes it feels a bit clumsy, especially in the repetitive pattern of James seeing something, than telling himself, "I will write a story about . . . " and the reader plays "I can guess that story in X words." There is also something a bit too mechanical and clinical in how James' creative process is presented.
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