The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

80. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

   Though 90% of Americans asked told Gallup pollsters they believed in some sort of God, in some circles, admitting it is still taboo enough to avert eyes and trigger self-conscious coughs. In a review of Christian Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss, (in the May 6, 2013 edition of The New Yorker) Adam Kirsch writes that “[to] confide such a moment [Wiman praying with his wife] is, in contemporary literary culture, perhaps more daring than the most outré sexual imaginings.” What Wiman was describing was more than a lukewarm belief in the existence of an entity understood only as the coalescence of a bunch of unimaginable (infinitude, timelessness, omnipresence, etc.) concepts; it was bowed-head, peaked-hands, down-on-your-knees practice, an admission so intimate it was bound to titillate some while embarrassing others. Though, as a philosophically and spiritually curious agnostic, I’ll admit that I find the sort of knee-jerk, ankle-deep atheism that’s become so popular a bit more embarrassing,  in a way, reading Brideshead Revisited was like walking in on a couple engaged in spontaneous prayer: I vacillated between excitement (what prose! what characters!) and embarrassment (just how does even the most vocal agnostic end up Catholic?!). 

   The book tells the a rather unremarkable story of the decades long relationship between Charles Ryder and the aristocratic Marchmain clan and their Wiltshire estate, Brideshead. Lady Marchmain is a devout and influential Catholic and it’s her religion that binds the family in the absence of its patriarch, Lord Marchmain. Lord Marchmain, having shunned his wife and her Church, fled England for Europe, where he set up house with his longtime mistress, Cora. A smart and sophisticated man, Lord Marchmain makes no secret of his antipathy for his wife’s religion. Not the sort of man you’d think would undergo a deathbed conversion. And yet, years after Lady Marchmain’s death, when Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead for what he knows will be the last time, this once proud man –  a man who promptly sent the priest tasked with saving his soul packing – now sick and terrified, renounces his sins and submits to the last sacrament. In a way, Lord Marchmain’s reversal is understandable – who knows, on my deathbed, maybe I’ll make Pascal’s wager as well–  and yet, it’s also astonishing. Even more puzzling, in some ways, is that rather than being received with the gracious indulgence owed to the dying, this final hour penitence actually inspires Lord Marchmain’s daughter, Julia, to renounce her love for Charles and return to the Church.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  

   Evelyn Waugh famously converted to Catholicism in 1930 and Brideshead Revisited, published in 1945, was his first avowedly Catholic book. Subtitled “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder”, I found myself wondering which of Charles’ memories were meant to be sacred and which were meant to be profane. In fact, the two periods in Charles’ life when he admits to feeling the most alive were periods during which he sinned gravely:  his drunken and debaucherous days at Oxford, where he meets Lord Marchmain’s son, Sebastian; and the adulterous affair he has years later with Lord Marchmain’s daughter, Julia.  

   Charles starts Oxford with a diligent, if slightly dull, set. But Sebastian, with his beauty and wealth, with his odd manner and aesthetic sensibility, with his teddy bear and stable of louche friends, stands out, and before long, he and Charles are inseparable. Under Sebastian’s influence, Charles rebels against the staid propriety of Oxford life. He outfits his room with Partagas cigars and Lalique glassware and skulls in bowls of rose petals.  He gets day-drunk and lives beyond his means. He drops his old friends and barely passes his classes. But throughout all the youthful hijinks, one never gets the sense that Charles’ rebellion is anything more than a phase. Sebastian, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. 

   The only thing more irrationally intense than Sebastian’s fear of abandonment is his resistance to his moralizing mother. Though, he’ll eventually flee his family for a hard and drunken life in North Africa, this period, the period that solidified their friendship and Charles’ connection to the Marchmain family, is among the most important periods of Charles’ life. Remembering, many years later, a summer he once spent at Brideshead alone with Sebastian, Charles wonders if “perhaps the Beatific Vision itself has some remote kinship with this lowly experience” because he was “ very near heaven during those languid days at Brideshead.” 

   Though he’ll marry, have children, and enjoy a fair measure of success as an architectural painter, Charles will never feel so alive again.  That is, until he runs into Sebastian’s sister, Julia, many years later. Like him, Julia is stuck in a loveless marriage, and it isn’t long before their shared sense of history brings them together. For two years, they’ll live as husband and wife in full view of their spouses.

   That Julia would be amenable to such unconventional living arrangements is hardly shocking considering how Lord and Lady Marchmain arranged their households. But as the specter of WWII looms over Europe, marriage starts to feel necessary, and Julia starts to think of the requisite divorces. However, spooked by her father’s deathbed conversion, Julia decides the only way to redeem herself for her sins is to give up her happiness and Charles.

   “[It] may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won’t despair of me in the end,” Julia explains and maybe that’s the key to understanding why Charles’ happiest memories, memories that I, in my pagan ignorance, would have picked out as his most sacred, are, in fact, his most profane. Though his joy has a purity and intensity that most of us would find aspirational, it doesn't change the fact that the source of his feeling is ultimately forbidden. Perhaps the transcendent, the spiritual, the supernatural, is found in the very act of denial. Knowing God is hard, and perhaps the simple, "lowly" joys of youth and love close our hearts to divine. Perhaps the most direct route to Him is through loss.


   I remain unconvinced. Unfortunately, what is denied the reader is the perhaps most interesting story of all: how does Charles, a fervent agnostic, who made regular sport of baiting the Marchmains into theological debate, come to his faith?

   Charles’ conversion is the shadow that hangs over the book. The novel’s conceit returns Charles to Brideshead during WWII, the grand estate now repurposed as barracks, giving him the opportunity to reflect on his time at Brideshead and his relationship to the Marchmains.  Narrator-Charles is also Catholic-Charles, and the act of remembering pugnacious Agnostic-Charles sets up the expectation that whatever follows, the distance between the two will be covered and explained. Thwarting expectations can be a powerful tool, used skillfully. However, here, Charles’ conversion feels like a cheap sleight of hand; it feels unearned and baffling precisely because it's unexplained. In a way, I suppose, that’s probably the point: one’s personal relationship to God is ineffable. Which is a shame. Reading fiction is the only way we can inhabit other minds, and it's one of the most rewarding ways to explore experiences we may never have ourselves, and I, for one, would’ve liked to have peeped Charles’ conversion because it'll be a while yet -- I hope -- before I'm making a Pascal's wager of my own.

81. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

Published in 1953, The Adventures of Augie March was Saul Bellow’s third novel. It was also the book that cemented his reputation as a singular and exciting writer and won him his first National Book Award. Bellow went on to win the NBA two more times (in 1964 for Herzog and in 1970 for Mr. Sammler’s Planet), as well as a Pulitzer (for Humboldt’s Gift) and, in 1976, the Nobel Prize for Literature. Only two other Americans have won the Nobel since – Isaac Singer and Toni Morrison –  lending credence to the claim that Bellow is a lion - perhaps the lion –  of 20th century American letters. Whatever his influence, The Adventures of Augie March in an indisputably American take on the picaresque, and insofar as the picaresque novel can be read as social critique, The Adventures of Augie March can be read as a playful gibe at free-market capitalism. It can also be read as a celebration of the complex web that gives structure to our lives: our relationships.
Augie March, our roguish anti-hero,  grows up poor and fatherless in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago in the early 20th century . Augie’s mother is half-blind and meek, and it’s hard to imagine her as a lustful woman, as one of “those women who Zeus got the better of in animal form”,  as the type of woman capable of a passion powerful enough to produce three sons out of wedlock. But the March boys, like the demigods fathered by Zeus, are uncommonly handsome. Simon is shrewd and ambitious, Georgie, sweet and innocent – and mentally-challenged. In order to make ends meet, Augie’s mother takes in a boarder, the imperious Mrs. Lausch, who, “representing the main body of married womankind” inflicts a “punishment in drudgery”, treating Augie’s docile mother like a servant in her own house. 
But this isn’t a Dickensian tale of soul-destroying poverty or heartbreaking disenfranchisement. What Augie lacks in social status and material advantages, he makes up for in intelligence, good looks and artless charm. He gets his first taste of the finer things when outfitted for a job in an Evanston tack shop, and it’s here that he discovers his ease among the rich and privileged.  In fact, the store’s owners, the Renlings, are so taken with him they offer to adopt him, to write him into their will, to leave him their fortune. This easy affability has the potential to take Augie far, and more than once he finds himself in the delicate role of personal assistant; first to a crippled and corrupt business man, William Einhorn whom Augie piggybanks in  and out of brothels, and later to Robey, an eccentric housebound millionaire who fancies himself a philosopher.
But what makes Augie so eminently likable is also exactly the thing that keeps him from capitalizing on the many opportunities fortune favors him with: despite Grandma Lausch’s attempt to plant the seeds of ambition, Augie isn’t a striver. Unlike Simon, Augie doesn’t hanker after money or prestige. Augie’s neither prideful nor avaricious, and his easy charm and self-assured intelligence disarms rather than threatens. Augie just drifts through his life, collecting an unlikely network of people – and adventures.
For better or worse, the only thing that seems to move Augie is love. For Augie, family is for keeps; one of the reasons he turns down the Renlings’ offer is his loyalty to his mother, and when Simon’s wealth turns him into an unbearable bully, Augie never holds it against him. In a similar fashion, when Augie discovers that the two loves of his life – Thea, a married heiress he follows to Mexico, and Stella, the woman he saves and later marries – aren’t exactly as they seem, he forgives them their faults because Augie can never give up on someone he loves. 
Quoting Heraclitus, Augie equates a man’s character with his fate. That is true only in so much as a man’s character affects the quality and nature of his relationships. What Augie lacks in ambition and resolve, he makes up for in decency and loyalty, and it's the people Augie knows, the relationships he cultivates, that give shape and meaning to his adventures. This is the true worth of our lives: not the things we own or the money we make, not the degrees we collect or the positions we hold, but the people we meet, the people with which we all share our own personal adventures.


82. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Angle of Repose, which won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is a shrewd  and stirring tale about the tragedies and rewards endemic to couplings as diverse as capital and innovation, law and order, love and marriage. It is also a complex commentary  on creative license and intertextuality  and the irreducible importance of narrative perspective.

Lyman Ward suffers from a crippling bone disease. His leg has been amputated, his vertebrae fused so that Lyman, a retired historian who’s made a life of looking to the past, can only face forward.  But faced with a pain-filled days and a terminal prognosis, Lyman has no interest in the future.  Instead, he moves himself into his grandparents’ house in the Sierra Nevada to sift through his grandmother’s letters. Preparing to write his grandmother’s biography, Lyman can almost forget that his wife of more than 25 years left him for the orthopedic surgeon who amputated his leg. 
When Susan Burling married Oliver Ward in the 1870s, she was a Long Island Quaker with artistic talent, cultural ambitions and Manhattan connections. She expected to live a life of cultured conversation on the East Coast, but Oliver, an engineer without a degree, was forced West to make a name for himself. Susan followed her husband across the American West – even as far as Mexico – and faced the rough, and often lawless, life she found  there with pluck and aplomb.

But cultured and genteel, Susan was a Victorian woman, and she often found herself embarrassed by her husband’s straightforward ways. Though far from refined, she tried to make the most of New Almaden society, hosting evenings whenever anyone interesting was in town. She even managed  to assemble an entourage of the lonely and well-read  content to spend their evenings in her cabin in rough and lawless Leadville.                                                                             

But this is no Victorian novel and Oliver is not to be rewarded for his hard work and honesty. In fact, a trusting nature can be a liability in the wild west, a place where men take justice into their own hands and the complacent can lose everything overnight to “land jumpers”.  Oliver is the kind of creative man whose intelligence and hard work results in innovations (like the invention of concrete) but for whom patents are redundant. Never a song-and-dance man, he has hard time pandering for capital. His unwillingness to charm has cost the Wards at least one fortune, and while he waits for backers to come through  to continue his stalled plans to irrigate the Boise Canyon, Susan supports their family of 5 with her stories and illustrations.
Unable to piece together any semblance of cultured society in Idaho, Susan resents her husband’s attachment to his doomed irrigation project. Frustrated and lonely, she encourages one of Oliver’s assistants, Frank, who has been in love with her for a while.  Innocent or otherwise, her flirtation has devastating consequences for the Ward family, and results in Susan and Oliver’s temporary separation.

Though Susan left no actual account of what happened – either of the events that took place or her desires – Lyman finds himself fleshing out the spaces. That is, faced with her complex emotional life, he can’t help but novelize her story, and it is precisely this – Lyman’s perspective – which defines and limits the possibilities of Susan’s story.

To Lyman – a dying man, dealing with what seems to be the ultimate disloyalty – Susan’s story is one about the strength of marital bonds. Susan might have strayed emotionally, but Lyman has a hard time believing she consummated her desires, and if she did, no matter: she stuck around when it counted, refusing to walk away from her shame, to flee from her dreaded western life to the culture and open arms of friends and family in New York. Instead, she opted to return to her marriage, to live out the rest of her days in the chilly shade of her failure. To Shelley, Lyman’s hippie secretary, Susan’s story is a tragedy of thwarted desires and missed opportunities, of misery and sexual repression. To  Rodman, Lyman’s son, Susan’s story is a Hollywood western.

Which brings us to one of the most interesting and more playful aspects of this book: intertextuality. The text of the novel consists of Shelley’s transcription of Lyman’s tapes, interspersed with Susan’s actual letters. Oliver and Susan Ward are based on Arthur DeWine Foote and Mary Hallock Foote, and Stegner  got some flack for including verbatim portions of Mary Hallock Foote’s letters. But I think most critics miss the point. In many ways this a very post-modern novel. Stegner is playing with narrative authority, while mocking Victorian expectations –the triumph of the good– and thumbing his nose at modernist call to immediacy. Stories are not in the facts, in the if-thens, but in the meaning those events take on for both the reader and the writer/narrator. If this is true, then appropriation of other people’s facts  -- letters, biographies – is fair game, because the story is not in the details, but in their telling. The story is the narrator, the telling. It resides in the space on the page, the interpretive leap across canyons of missing information. Just as Stegner makes the leap with Mary Foote’s letters, Lyman makes them with Susan’s, and we are forced to make it to understand why Lyman’s wife left him – and in this yawning interpretative space is the real story of Angle of Repose.  

83. A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

   “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” For Naipaul, substance is scar tissue and identity is born from conflict. The cultural substance that coheres a tribe is (arguably) a product of the struggle to survive in a particular environment, and nothing forges alliances or cements national bonds like the shared spilling of blood. Personal identity, too, is born of conflict, of the battle between personal freedom and the demands of the group. The man who is nothing hasn’t acquired these scars. But meaningful existence  – or manhood as Naipaul would have it – is a not a matter of incessant conflict; it’s a matter of choosing your battles because as the cyclical fate of the anonymous town at bend in the river shows, just as there are great costs to neglecting your personal ambitions for the goals of the group,  there are perils to going it alone in a world where fortune is fickle and power is as hard to keep a handle on as a landed trout.

   When Salim, an ethnic Indian from Africa’s eastern coast whose people have more in common with the “Hindus of northwestern India” than the Arabs with whom they share a  god, arrives in the town at the bend in the river, it, once a bustling colonial outpost with a booming economy and regular steamer service, has “almost ceased to exist.” Independence bundled peoples under a single flag whose only claim to a shared identity was their colonial humiliation and “at independence the people of [the] region [went] mad with . . .all the accumulated anger of the colonial period, and every kind of reawakened tribal fear.”  

   As the Europeans washed their hands of increasingly fractious colonies, rebellious uprisings bloodied the continent.  With no backing to their authority other than custom, with no cultural narrative other than that told by European historians, belonging no more to their adopted home than to the country from which their ancestors came generations ago, Salim’s people on the coast are especially vulnerable.  But Salim “can’t stay with [his] community, to pretend that [he] had simply to travel along with them, was to be taken with them to destruction.” He has to go it alone.

   It’s this desire to flee the destruction and insignificance that brings Salim to the town at the bend in the river. Nazruddin, an old family friend, hoping that Salim will marry one of his daughters, sells Salim his (now grossly devalued) interests in the town: a general goods store and a handful of agencies. This is Salim’s chance to throw off filial obligation, to become a self-made man, and as he travels to his new life in the interior, he can’t help but observe that the slaves “had made the same journey, but of course on foot and in the opposite direction, from the center of the continent to the east coast.” But freedom has its costs, both for Salim and the newly independent town: though a new president is in place, he has yet to demonstrate his mettle and the effective power vacuum scares off business.

   Salim has little choice,  though, but to wait for the villagers to emerge from the bush, exhausted from their tribal wars, looking “feeble and crazed” and “so much like people needing the food and the peace the town offered.” Soon, the villagers that come into the town for the market begin to stay and the steamer reclaims the river.

   And the new president installs his army.

   The village warriors resent the army’s presence and rumors of an impending rebellion spread through the town. But the president is a cunning man and he cruelly culls his army with one hand while squashing the rebellion with the other. This decisive demonstration of authority soothes anxieties and with a powerful leadership promising stability, business flourishes and the town booms.

   But accepting the auspices of  a leader can be castrating. Raymond, a white professor, enjoys the privileged status of being the president’s advisor. The president’s sentimental attachment to the grudging guidance Raymond gave him as a boy launches Raymond from his life as an undistinguished college professor to a high-ranking policy advisor. He travels abroad officially in the president’s stead and his prestigious position wins him a beautiful Belgian bridge, Yvette. The problem is: Raymond owes his position entirely to patronage and when the president decides that it’s no longer wise for an African leader to be seen seeking counsel from a white man, Raymond is banished from the capital to the town at the bend in river. Raymond runs the Domain,  the new university complex built on the ruins of the old pre-Independence European suburb. Though, life on the Domain is far from hard, Raymond wants to return to the capital. But rather than fight for his position, he waits around to be called, for the winds of president’s favor to blow once again in his direction.  In fact, Raymond’s near pathological avoidance of conflict hollows him out; cuckolded right under his nose, he floats in and out of his wife’s parties like a monomaniacal ghost, effusing support of an increasingly ridiculous regime, support he hopes will be reported in the capital. 

   In stark contrast to Raymond’s cowardly congeniality, is Salim’s friend, Indar’s stubborn contempt for the humiliations of capitalism. An Oxford graduate, Indar finds the song-and-dance required to get a job degrading and later, when his lack of prospects weakens his resolve and he finds himself reading job descriptions “growing false to [himself], acting to [himself], convincing [himself] of [his] rightness for whatever was being described”, he decides to throw off bourgeois respectability for a short post-grad stint as an actor. Eventually Indar realizes that to retain control of his destiny, he has to capitalize on his individuality and he manages to parlay his unique position as a African-not-of-Africa into a position as a sort of policy consultant for a Western NGO. Flush with Western money, he devotes himself to creating a tribe of people like himself: home-grown scholars, educated products of the new Africa.  

   Indar dreams of a pan-African intelligentsia. The irony is: for Indar’s idea to succeed, the new generation of educated Africans, Africans like Salim’s protégé, Ferdinand, a boy who came of age post-Independence without any tribal affiliations, must forgo the jobs waiting for them on graduation, and their personal ambitions, in favor of the uncertain rewards of belonging to Indar’s nascent tribe. Of course, not all personal ambitions are worth pursuing, and many of these new Africans realize much too late how stifling their government jobs are, how little control they have over their own fortunes.

   But membership is not without its benefits and so what, if anything, should bind us to each other? When the government seizes and redistributes foreign owned assets, Salim misses the signs because he, embroiled in an affair with Yvette, had turned his back on his friends, and when yet another rebel group has the town whipped into a frenzy of greed and corruption, it’s Salim’s friendship with Ferdinand that allows him to escape. The point is: we need to belong to survive, but the community we subject ourselves to should be of our own choosing, not one foisted on us by biological or historical accidents.

   I’m not going to lie: this was my first time reading Naipaul and I found his prose thrilling.  Not so much because he is a great prose stylist, but because he weights his language so well, distills so much meaning in his subtly simple sentences.  Often, I found myself reading sentences, paragraphs, over and over again, in awe at Naipaul’s breathtaking sophistication and the sustained control he exercised over his prose. So much harder than it looks. An example:
Nobody wanted to move that rubbish. But the taxis stank of disinfectant; the officials of our health department were fierce about taxis. And for this reason. In the colonial days public vehicles had by law to be disinfected once a year by the health department. The disinfectors were entitled to a personal fee. That custom had been remembered. Any number of people wanted to be disinfectors; and now taxis and trucks weren’t disinfected just once a year; they were disinfected whenever they were caught. The fee had to be paid each time; and disinfectors in their official jeeps played hide and seek with taxis and trucks among the hills of rubbish. The red dirt roads of our town, neglected for years, had quickly become corrugated with the new traffic we had; and these disinfectant chases were in a curious kind of slow motion, with the vehicles of hunters and hunted pitching up and down the corrugations like launches in a heavy sea.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to number 72 and A House for Mr. Biswas.

84. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

I don’t know how to judge my indifference to this book. Sometimes books are like calf leather gloves in August: sumptuous wonders of craftsmanship and texture that we’d appreciate if only we weren’t too tired, too harried, too dull, too careless, too immature, too hot, at that moment. Sometimes the problem is simply being second act to an indisputable star: I read the astoundingly moving Stoner by John Williams immediately before I read this book. And sometimes books are lauded out of habit – some suitably distinguished person said something wonderful thing about it once and intellectual insecurity have caused people to sing undue praises ever since. Whatever the reasons, The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen left me utterly numb.

                Sixteen and orphaned, Portia Quayne is sent to live with her half-brother, Thomas and his socialite wife, Anna, in London. Condemned to wander up and down the Riviera, from back facing rooms to ski chalets in August, it’s the first time Portia will live in a proper house, weighed down by solid furniture and thick draperies, the first time she’ll have a room of her own.  Thomas’s father was a spineless sort, and when it became apparent his affair with Portia’s mother would produce a child, he went groveling to his wife, who promptly donned her mantel of moral sacrifice, putting Thomas’ father on the first train to Portia’s mother.    Ashamed he lost the home he’d loved, Thomas’ father couldn’t bring himself to make a second one, and so he dragged his misfit family around Europe until he died, and Portia’s mother soon followed.  
                Portia’s arrival shocks the bourgeois rhythm of Thomas and Anna’s childless Regent’s Park townhouse, and although Thomas is not a cruel man, Portia reminds him of all that unpleasantness surrounding his father.  Anna, on the other hand, resents Portia’s naivete, and after reading Portia’s diary, can’t shake the moral weight of Portia’s judgment. Aware she’s unwanted, Portia tries to mourn her parents as inconspicuously as possible while learning all she can about her new world.
                With few people to talk to beside Matchett, a maid inherited with Thomas’ mother’s furniture who Portia puts to good use filling in blanks about her father, Portia’s inordinate attachment to Eddie, a shiftless opportunist whose flirtation with Anna lead to his employment at Thomas’s firm, is supposed to be understandable.  As Portia’s new guardians, Thomas and Anna treat their friendship with grudging amusement: Portia can be trusted and Eddie is harmless.
            Unable to accompany Anna and Thomas on their trip to Capri, Portia is sent to the seaside to stay with Anna’s old governess, Mrs. Heccombe. Portia enjoys the seaside and free and easy manner of Mrs. Heccombe’s children, Daphne and Dickie, who let Portia tag along with them even though they’re quite a bit older. However, when Eddie visits her for a weekend, he’s often drunk and inconsiderate, and he hits on Daphne right under Portia’s nose. When Portia confronts him about it, he brushes her off, and she begs him to forgive him.
                Which brings us to my problem with this book: Portia’s inexplicable attraction to Eddie is alienating, so much so that her innocence with respect to  him almost reads as pathological. This is made all apparent when presented against the other moral innocent slinking around Thomas and Anna: Major Brutt.
Major Brutt is an old friend of Anna’s ex-boyfriend, Pidgeon. When she runs into him outside of the cinema, she invites him home with the family for a drink and he accepts with pleasure. Just back from the war, he’s in London looking for work. Comfortably installed in the Quaynes’ drawing room, he’s openly thankful for their invitation. He speaks freely of his loneliness and the difficulty he’s been having securing work, seemingly unaware that for them his troubles are little more than an unwelcome appeal for help. When he takes Anna’s offer to drop in anytime at face value, we blush for him, while hoping he finds his way; when Portia takes Eddie’s half-hearted marriage proposal to heart, we can’t help but shake our heads, baffled.
Eventually all artifice is exposed when Portia learns Anna has been reading her diary and Eddie has known  all along. She runs off to Major Brutt’s hotel, refusing to return until Anna and Thomas make some grand gesture; they send the maid to fetch her.  
Portia’s story should be moving, but there is an dissonant airiness to this book; episodes are layered one over the other, like translucencies, without ever generating weight, at least not for this reader. Perhaps one day, when I’m feeling particularly affronted by the cruelty of polite society or nostalgic for a time when I was innocent in the ways of men, I’ll pick it up again and give it a second go. Until then, I won't just it too harshly; just another case of calf leather gloves in August, I suppose.