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Daisy Miller, a novella by Henry James (book recommendation and review)

Daisy Miller saw its first publication in a magazine in 1878. One year later, in 1879 it was published in a book form. I first read Daisy Miller when I was a student and I took an instant liking to it. I would say that Daisy Miller is a great introduction to Henry James. This book is not only shorter, but also less complex than other works of his that I have read. However, it bears a close resemblance to his novels and explores similar themes. Having previously read The Portrait of a Lady, I found it hard not to compare the two.  Moreover, while I was reading Daisy Miller I experienced, perhaps predictably, a feeling of déjà vu.  

Annie Miller aka Daisy is, just like Isabelle the heroine of his novel The Portrait of a Lady, an American girl visiting Europe for the first time. We could say that both girls are ‘discovering’ not only Europe but themselves for isn’t there something about travel that can make us open our eyes? One could argue that travel always makes us compare and revaluate things, and while we are about it, perhaps we could also add that travelling can make us learn something about ourselves? Youth is all about trying to discover who we are.  In addition, when one is young, everything can feel like a discovery.

If one wants to write a novel that comments on society, a young woman always makes for a good protagonist. Why? Because society is especially diligent when it comes to paying attention to young ladies. This attention is not always a positive one, indeed, our society can be quite judgmental when it comes to young women. Young ladies are the ones who have to keep ‘their reputation intact’. They are expected to behave accordingly to certain society rules, and while the society rules of this novel may seem ‘archaic’ to a modern reader, one can still appreciate the sharp contrast between personal desires and social norms.

 The description of pressure that society can put on an individual is often a part of James’ writing. The relationship between our social and individual identity is always an interesting subject. Henry James excels at portraying the society and emphasizing the social pressure on individual. James’ dialogues are always well written and natural sounding, but at the same time they capture the social norms with finesse. In this novel James compares and contrasts American and European society on more levels than one.

The novel opens up in Switzerland with Daisy meeting a fellow American Fredrick, who falls in love with her shortly. Daisy is not approved of by his aunt. Fredrick seems to be uncertain of his views of Daisy, but remains attracted to her. They socialize and spend some time together, but eventually Fredrick has to leave Daisy who invites him to visit her in Rome. They do meet in Rome, but there Daisy has made a new friend, a young Italian man nobody seems to approve of.

I would lie if I said that I cared deeply about what happened to Daisy. I cared, but not that much, it was more a feeling of detachment than indifference. Naturally, I was sad to see Daisy treated unfairly but I couldn’t relate to her fully, because I found it hard to figure out who Daisy really was. Was Daisy provocative or was she just stubborn? Was she daring or was she just a flirt? Henry James is ever the master of ambiguity and while I usually enjoy the elusiveness of his writing, in this case I think there just wasn’t enough space for proper character development. With this book James manages to capture our attention, create a credible character and build a tragic story around her, but the writer doesn’t attempt a complex character study. Perhaps this decision only makes sense considering the length and the organization of the book. Speaking of the plot and the narrative, the ending was somewhat abrupt, but perhaps only more powerful because of that.

James' prose flows as beautifully as ever. His sentences are elegant and well crafted, his social observations clever and to the point. Is it enough? Quite frankly, for me it is. This novella was a wonderful read. It lacked the depth and the complexity of A Portrait Of a lady, but it makes for a lovely read. The story is somewhat predictable, yet by the time I finished reading this novella, I was glad I read it. It sure wasn't a wasted effort. It wasn’t much of an effort at all. Daisy Miller was easy to read, an enjoyable book with enough food for the thought. I would recommend it to all fans of Henry James as well as those who want to read more of him but lack the time or the motivation to tackle his longer works.

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