A Salute To James' Dense, Intense 'Ambassadors'

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'The Ambassadors'
Ann Patchett

In Ann Patchett's most recent novel, Run, she predicts Barack Obama's re-election in 2012. Melissa Ann Pinney hide caption

toggle caption Melissa Ann Pinney

When my friend, Jim, first invited me to spend part of my summer vacation with him, he sent a note about our planned activities: "We will be discussing The Ambassadors."

I'm no stranger to people telling me "You must read this" and meaning it as more than a passing suggestion. Writers press books hard on other writers; it's how we test each other, communicate with each other, love each other. I once wanted to teach a college course called "Books I Read for Men" that would comprise all of the enormous texts I'd slogged through to impress various boyfriends.

That Jim was neither a boyfriend nor a writer didn't matter. He was my lawyer and both better read and a more thoughtful reader than anyone I'd ever known. If the topic of conversation for our vacation was going to be The Ambassadors — that notoriously opaque Henry James novel published at the start of the 20th century — I would get to work straightaway.

And work it was. I followed Lambert Strether to Paris as he tried to reclaim the errant playboy Chad Newsome and return him home to his mother. The action was so subtle and the conversations so dense I could scarcely blink for fear of missing something. Suddenly reading felt more like deep sea diving, going miles out on a boat, suiting up in heavy gear, and then swimming down and down into that other world.

But that's what's so beautiful about the book — and about Henry James. Once you get in, it becomes your entire consciousness, the air you breathe. I had never read anything so all-encompassing, nothing that could knock out every bit of ancillary chatter in my brain. What seemed impenetrable at first slowly bloomed open with layer upon layer of meaning. The rewards of the effort were limitless, the literary equivalent of a religious text. As soon as I finished, I wanted to start again.

As promised, Jim and I spent much of that first vacation discussing the book, and in the summers that followed, there was more and more Henry James between us. He has seen me through everything from Daisy Miller to The Wings of the Dove. I read The Ambassadors for a second time in January. Jim sent the following e-mail last month concerning his third go-through:

"Let it be known that at 5:09, Wednesday, October 15th, 2008, James. A. Fox turned over the last page of a 457 page edition of The Ambassadors by H. James, and, more to the point, got through about the last 30 or so pages with what impressed him as pretty much total comprehension, give or take a few random sentences that escaped him."

We are presently in negotiations over our reading of The Golden Bowl.

Jim had a heart attack last year, and I am pleased to say he has recovered beautifully. What I realized when he was in the hospital was the extent to which I could not manage without him.

True friendship is a rare gift in life, but a friend with whom you can read and reread The Ambassadors cannot be replaced. I would never have found the courage nor fortitude to take on James without Jim, and now in my mind it is forever his novel, our novel.

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

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