Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The Golden Bowl – Henry James

This is the first time I’ve reviewed two books by the same author back-to-back. I had high hopes for The Golden Bowl, as it came very highly recommended by a friend. These hopes were tempered somewhat by reading The Turn of The Screw last week, but not completely lost. After all, Graham Greene once said that The Golden Bowl was one of James’s “three poetic masterpieces”, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Well, I only found out later that my friend was a fan of Henry James in general but had never actually read The Golden Bowl in particular, and thus began my nightmare…

The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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This edition of The Golden Bowl came with an author’s preface written by James himself. By the end of the first page, I could tell that James liked to use 20 words (and as many commas) to say something that could be said in five. Red flag number one! Reading the preface was such torture that I ended up skipping half of it altogether, and jumped straight into the story (which I never do!). I’d hoped the story would be an improvement but (spoiler alert) NOPE! I literally came to dread even picking up The Golden Bowl before I’d reached the end of the first chapter.

If I’m being honest, plot-wise, it wasn’t that bad. It kicks off with an impoverished Italian prince (Amerigo) all set to marry Maggie Verver (the daughter of a wealthy American). On the eve of the wedding, his former lover (Charlotte) shows up out of the blue. He never married Charlotte because they were both too poor, but she was in effect “the one who got away”. He goes ahead and marries Maggie, but Charlotte just kind of hangs around.

A couple years later, Maggie becomes increasingly worried about her lonely old dad. She sets him up with her friend Charlotte (of all people), figuring it would get them both out of her hair. Papa Verver and Charlotte hit it off and get hitched, but he and Maggie remain very close – often leaving Charlotte and the Prince to their own devices…

… so no prizes for guessing what happens next 😉 While Maggie and Mr Verver are off having special father-daughter time, Charlotte and the Prince start getting it on. Apparently, James was a visionary who recognised the market for stepmother-in-law porn way back in 1904.

Relationships in The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is where the symbol/plot device of “the golden bowl” comes in. See, the Prince had gone shopping with Charlotte prior to his wedding, looking for a wedding gift for Maggie. They came up with bupkis, but while they were looking they shared A Moment over a golden bowl in a random shop in the city. Years later, Maggie enters that very same shop and buys that very same golden bowl (which doesn’t say much for their stock turnover). The shopkeeper follows her home, claiming that he “accidentally overcharged” her for it and wants to give her the change (this is laughably contrived, but it’s not even the most unbelievable part). While he’s in Maggie’s house, he spots a photo of Charlotte and the Prince. He miraculously remembers that he saw them together in his store years ago, and suggests to Maggie that they’re having an affair, before he disappears into the night. That’s how Maggie twigs what’s going on. Yeah, right!

Anyway, setting that stretch of logic aside, Maggie goes and confronts her husband (and he breaks down, confessing straight away, simp). She is mortified by the affair, and insists that no one should know that she knows. She deftly arranges a pretense under which her father and Charlotte are to return to America together, leaving Maggie and the Prince to salvage the smouldering remains of their dumpster-fire marriage. Sure enough, as soon as Charlotte is out of sight, the Prince goes back to whispering sweet nothings in Maggie’s ear, and promising her that he only has eyes for her. Pffft!

Just like in The Turn of the Screw (James found a formula that worked and stuck to it!), it seems like a simple enough plot. It’s certainly not as complex as some of the others I’ve encountered in Keeping Up With The Penguins. But, damn! It took me for-fucking-ever to read The Golden Bowl. James went out of his way to crack a nut with the mother of all sledgehammers.

I ended up having to look up chapter summaries of The Golden Bowl online, to recap what I had just read and make sure I was following what was happening. In fact, I had to use almost every trick in my how-to-finish-a-book-you-hate arsenal. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the allure of a unique and complex style, but James’s was literally an impediment to my reading. I didn’t think I could possibly find a book more difficult to read than Mrs Dalloway, but here we are.

To say that James’s writing is dense would be the understatement of the century. His supporters argue that the writing is “beautiful”, that James captures the stresses of modern marriage and the “circuitous methods” one employs to overcome them (fancy language for fucking around, it seems), but it’s all a long-winded way of saying that James wrote a bloated thesis on how to stand by your man. I mean, I get that he was trying to pit the adulterers (the Prince and Charlotte) against the self-involved narcissists (Maggie and Mr Verver), but should it really be that hard to communicate the notion that it takes two to tango?

The Golden Bowl ended up on my reading list because it was ranked by The Guardian as one of the top 100 greatest books written in English. I say: boo to that! It bored and frustrated me in previously unimaginable ways. I think that James and I need to take some time apart… forever sounds good to me. I recommend reading The Golden Bowl if you’re participating in a competition to find the book with the most commas and/or run-on sentences. That’s about all it has to offer, as far as I can see.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Golden Bowl:

  • “The worst novel I’ve tried to read is Hideaway, by Dean Koontz. The Golden Bowl is the worst novel I ever finished. It seems to take place on another planet, one where there is nothing to do but think about who is doing what to whom. The writing is beyond bad. Spare yourself.” – Larry the Lawyer
  • “…. Henry James is not my cup of tea. Tea being an appropriate metaphor, as Mr James could no doubt write fifty pages about how a woman holds her cup of tea with her pinkie finger extended just so, therefore indicating to the rest of the group her inner turmoils, her family history, and what she fed the dog for dinner….” – Elmore Hammes
  • “The language in this “novel” is so pretentious and convoluted as to be largely unreadable by the average reader. It seems that James has never met a comma he didn’t like, and uses them to imbed all sorts of modifiers and asides. Although the graduate students may attach some deeper meaning to this, I suspect he really didn’t have a clear idea of anything he wanted to say so he simply rambled on. At least with Faulkner there is a payoff….” – Stan Eissinger
  • “I found the lives of people who had nothing better to do but visit each other and gossip, woefully uninteresting.” – Ms Katharine L. Kane

Learn from my mistake: book recommendations from friends aren’t always the gold you’d hope they’d be! Check out the five mistakes you probably make when you’re picking your next read here.


  1. I am still reading Portrait of a Lady. I usually am fine with complex writing styles, intricate characterizations and slow plots. With that, I had a few issues, of the kind you have had with this book, early on. It has gotten much better however. I should be finished soon and will subsequently share my thoughts.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      November 6, 2018 at 11:13 AM

      Hahahaha well I’m glad it’s not just me, Brian! I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Portrait of a Lady (and I’m a bit bitter that I didn’t choose that one for The List instead of this atrocity, because it sounds like you’re having a much better time with it on the whole).

  2. I loved reading your review, but think I’ll pass on reading the actual book 😀

    • ShereeKUWTP

      November 6, 2018 at 11:17 AM

      I’m usually not one to dissuade someone from picking up a book, any book, but this is an exception: do not bother. I have told you everything you could possibly need to know in this review 😂

  3. Blimey, this one I have not seen televised. Now I think I begin to understand why…

    • ShereeKUWTP

      November 21, 2018 at 11:34 AM

      To be honest, I assume the movie would be much better than the book – less meandering, fewer run-on sentences, less of James’s indulgent bullshit… but I’m not in any rush to check it out, I’m scarred for life! Hahahaha.

  4. I’m just starting. After twenty pages of the preface I fear the worst. Verbose! Irrelevant! Self indulgent! Are you sure it won’t get a lot better? Tell me it will be more “cheerful” and less complicated than “The Sound and the Fury”!

    • ShereeKUWTP

      September 25, 2021 at 10:48 AM

      Well, I’ve not read The Sound And The Fury as yet Brian, so all I can do is cross my fingers for you 🤞😅 I hope you end up enjoying The Golden Bowl more than I did!

  5. It’s your lack, not James’s that’s the problem. Something small, like the blind person and the elephant, can never accurately perceive anything larger. I would recommend James’s middle period. But none of you ever questions your own intelligence, it’s James, not you. Henry James is a great genius, you can’t say the same thing about yourself. So your comments are really valueless. People who have problems tend to blame others, authors, parents, friends, etc. They usually do not blame themselves. Let’s say, among others, The Golden Bowl is like K2 for mountaineers. Only the best, the strongest, the most motivated can ever reach the top of the mountain. There are plenty of great novels that are much easier to understand, of course. I just want to hear one of you blame your own inadequacies.

    • Sheree

      March 29, 2023 at 4:05 PM

      Oh my gosh, Allen, you’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. I can only hope someday to reach the intellectual heights you have!

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