In her second novel (Glorie, 1998), a New York Times culture critic travels back to the 1920s to tell a story of uptown society and the downtown art scene.
Caroline Stephens is an heiress and socialite, married to a rich but unexciting man. She feels stifled by her privileged existence, and she has nothing but scorn for the “self-important businessmen” and “interchangeable wives” who inhabit her circle. Then she discovers art, and she becomes a collector and patron. When one of the artists she supports, Nick Leone, shows a portrait of her—quite naked and clearly aroused—at a gallery opening, she’s devastated by the scandal. What follows is much less interesting than one might expect. Part of the problem is Caroline herself: It’s not easy to feel much sympathy for a woman with enough power and money to destroy a man for sullying her reputation. And part of the problem is structural. James has chosen to have Caroline tell her story in the form of reminiscence. It’s inevitable that even the most tireless soliloquist will leave things out, but Caroline leaves out too much. She tells a great deal more than she shows. For instance, there are no scenes of Caroline’s education as a connoisseur; instead, there are lists of the painters and sculptors whose work she buys. The New York art world of the ’20s was a fascinating place, but you’d never know it from reading this novel. Of course, some of Caroline’s self-editing is strategic, particularly when it comes to her relationship with Nick. The author makes the question of Nick’s motivation the central mystery. Was it malice—as Caroline assumes—or something else altogether? Unfortunately, the reader has few clues from which to draw any solid conclusions. Instead, James slowly reveals that her protagonist is not just a spoiled, pretentious dilettante, but also a rather cold-hearted fraud. The true scandal here is not a racy painting, but Caroline’s monumental and destructive dishonesty.
As this story’s heroine evolves from being merely boring to fundamentally loathsome, so too does her tale.