Beauty and Attention

Written by Liz Rosenberg
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1954 Rochester, New York, Libby Archer, whose parents have both died, is sorting through items in her home with her friend Henrietta. Most of Libby’s well-meaning friends, and her suitor, Casper, expect she will now marry. Instead, Libby decides to take an extended visit to her wealthy aunt and uncle’s country estate, Gardencourt, in Ireland. There Libby is entertained and charmed by her invalid cousin, Lazarus, as well as his friend Lord Warburton. Although Lord Warburton proposes to Libby, she turns him down, favoring a trip to the Continent with her aunt. In Paris she meets another socialite, Madame Merle. Libby’s terminally ill uncle dies shortly after but mysteriously bequeaths Libby a large fortune. In Rome, Madame Merle introduces Libby—now a rich lady—to a struggling artist, Gilbert Osmond. He is a widower with a young daughter. Libby’s independence takes a turn, but not in the direction she wishes. She has to struggle out of the devious bonds that entangle her.

As acknowledged in the author’s note, many readers will recognize that this story is based on Henry James’s classic The Portrait of a Lady, from the plot and similarity of characters’ names. Rosenberg has closely followed James’s writing style, including his refined prose and use of ellipses. Although James had captured the norms of 1860s Victorian society, the transporting of some of these to this novel’s setting of the 1950s seems odd, such as when Libby’s aunt doesn’t permit her to socialize in the drawing room in the late evenings with Lord Warburton and even her cousin Lazarus present. Nevertheless, the perils to women are still real today. An enjoyable read even for those unfamiliar with James’s novel.