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Book Review: The Prince

Dinitia Smith, an award-winning fiction writer and former literary journalist for The New York Times, has a winner with her new novel, The Prince. The story, set in part on Gardiners Island in Long Island Sound, is intended as a tribute to Henry James’s massive 1904 novel The Golden Bowl, his last and, she says in an endnote, “his greatest work.”

She succeeds — in updating and making accessible James’s fascinating, at times excruciatingly observed, depiction of love, marriage and adultery in a society where money and privilege are all. If this sounds as if she’s writing something close to a complicated, high-toned soap opera, the answer is, admiringly, yes.

Smith, whose resumé includes an Emmy for filmmaking, may have a potential movie here, with four juicy parts for actors skilled in psychological nuance. Not to mention the sensitively crafted scenes that show the overlap and conflict of love as affection, lust and family bonding. Where James strings together periodic sentences in long paragraphs, Smith keeps her eye on action more than inner action, and on a reverence for setting for its own sake — modern Italy, Upper East Side Manhattan, Gardiner’s Island — all detailed in rich contemporary detail, where James leans more on the symbolism of history.

Here’s James starting out: “The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him; he was one of the modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the Tiber.” You could analyze that sentence for some time for its critical and cultural suggestiveness, whereas Smith moves immediately to her subject — marriage and money — and creates directly the main situation — the ethical and moral tension for characters bent on doing the right thing, out of desire and necessity: “The time had come for Federico, the prince, to sign the prenuptial agreement.”

The Golden Bowl essentially explores hidden flaws in the most agreeable of human natures (cracks in the golden bowl), and also harmful effects that ironically may flow from innocence and trust. Smith channels these Jamesian themes, but also “fleshes out” a compelling story of sexual obsession and the expectations and tolerances of society.

Federico, a good-looking but impoverished Italian prince of 33, has a title but no job, no particular education, no funds, no interests. He loves sports, especially soccer, has a good heart (in Italy he coached poor kids in soccer), plays guitar in a band going nowhere, but he’s aimless. Bored. He does have exotic charm, however, and attracts beautiful women. Two in particular. One, a half-Italian, half American beauty, Christina, manipulative and without money or prospects, falls in love with him in Italy, and he with her, but he breaks it off. She’s devastated. A year later, through the same family friend who had introduced him to Christina, he meets and becomes engaged to Emily Woodford, the pretty, quiet, intelligent and overprotected daughter of a powerful, wealthy titan of industry and the international art world. A lonely widower who lives on the Upper East Side and who also owns Gardiner’s Island. The two women know each other from childhood and school, but only Christina and the old family friend know of their shared romantic attachment to the prince.

But wait: just when you think you know how it all may turn out, it doesn’t. Though you’re likely to start thinking about whom to cast in these delicious roles.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.