This fictional account of the adult life of American novelist Henry James is told in flowing form with insight into the author’s emotional and human side rather than merely his scholarly persona. Readers who enjoy Henry James’s novels may have thought that the writer himself was reclusive, stiff, a bit starchy. Tóibín’s accounting of the man shines a different light on James as a man who loved to write, who was genial yet also craved his “hard-won solitude.” From James’s attempts to launch a doomed play despite a noble plot to attending a theater where Oscar Wilde is wildly popular though shocking, Henry seems innocent yet wise enough to learn from his adventures. The novel seems to hint at his sexual ambivalence, but he enjoys female company, in particular his cousin, Minnie, who is outspoken enough to interest two Civil War veterans who befriend her and James. Minnie’s importance to James is very touching when she learns she is ill and wants nothing more than to meet her favorite writer, George Eliot. Too sick to travel, James is her proxy, and reports back to her.
All of James’s relationships and encounters are fresh sources for his stories, which he uses wisely when committing their lives into ink on paper. Tóibín’s novel is a glorious read intuiting a life of Henry James that complements scholarly works of fact and analysis. The Master brings James into our midst, and we learn to love him as one of us.