Reading a book

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The Happy Ending
After her mother took to bed, Lily Tuck read her a novel by Henry James—and righted one of literature's great wrongs.

My mother was blonde and very beautiful—her looks were often compared to Greta Garbo's— and she spoke with a charming middle-European accent. Although she never graduated from high school, she was very wise and had good instincts. She was also warm and vivacious, and people liked her immediately. Indeed, many people loved her.

We were very different. I was studious and quiet. Although slightly mystified by my accomplishments as a writer, my mother was always proud of me. (After her death, I found a scrapbook she had kept with all my book reviews—good and bad.) Despite our differences, we were very close.

My mother died after a long and painful illness, though fortunately, and according to her wishes, she died at home. I, her only daughter, lived nearby. After she became sick, I visited her nearly every day. At some point during her illness, I suggested that I read out loud to her.

"All right," my mother said without much enthusiasm. "But what will you read?" She sounded wary. She was not interested in literature, had never read—nor probably heard of—James Joyce, Dostoevsky or Beckett.

I thought long and hard before choosing a book from among my favorites: To the Lighthouse? No, too sad; Mrs. Ramsey dies. Joan Didion's Democracy? No, too disjunctive. Finally I decided on The Portrait of a Lady. I began:

"Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea..."

Pausing, I looked over at my mother. Was she listening?

Sitting up in bed, dressed in her pretty pink robe and matching nightgown—until almost the last, appearances were very important to her—she was smiling. "I've always liked a cup of tea in the afternoon," she said.

I nodded and continued, reading the description of Lord Warburton: "a noticeably handsome face, fresh-coloured, fair and frank, with firm, straight features, a lively grey eye..." I felt my mother's interest growing.

Isabel Archer makes her appearance in the second chapter and is described as lovely and confident. After a week or two of listening, my mother, her voice still firm, said, "Isabel should change her mind and marry Lord Warburton. He's so good-looking, and he owns a house with a moat."

All of a sudden, I realized that the novel I picked was a big mistake. How would I explain Isabel's disastrous choice—Gilbert Osmond? This was not a novel with a happy ending. Au contraire. Nevertheless, I read on.

My mother complained that Caspar Goodwood was a bore; nor did she like pushy, noisy Henrietta Stackpole, and as for untrustworthy Madame Merle, my mother said, "She's a real social climber."

The description of Gilbert Osmond is ambiguous: his face, his head, was sensitive, he was not handsome, but he was fine... My mother was immediately suspicious. "He reminds me of your father's friend who married a woman twice his age because she had a lot of money."

By the time I was halfway through The Portrait of a Lady, my mother was too weak to sit up. She was sedated, and most of the time her eyes were closed, but when I stopped reading, she would open them again.

"Go on," she said softly.

In Rome, Isabel Archer meets Gilbert Osmond; Ralph Touchett, her cousin who is also in love with her; and Lord Warburton, whose offers of marriage she has repeatedly and perversely refused. It soon becomes clear that she will choose Gilbert Osmond. "Do you mean will she accept him?" Ralph Touchett asks Lord Warburton.

For my mother's sake, I decided that this could not be. My voice quavered a little as I altered Henry James's elegant words:

"'No, she will not accept him,' Lord Warburton answers Ralph Touchett. 'I am going to marry Isabel Archer.'"

"I knew it," my mother whispered.