Looking for a happy ending? Don't look to "The American." 

Dark Romance

If your head is feeling too large and you're thinking you might have had enough of holly-jolly good times, maybe you're in the right mood for Henry James' "The American." It's a tale of dark romance without even the hint of a happy ending. Henry James specialized in New World- meets-Old World stories in which Americans — trusting, naive, straightforward and virtuous — run up against Europeans — aristocratic, jaded, decadent and morally ambiguous. "The American" was his third novel, set in Paris and published in 1877. The plot has a number of hooks: a whorish woman artist; a gruesome duel; an aristocratic beauty with a tragic past; a scheming, poisonous mother; and enough Gothic secrets to fill Notre Dame. Our titular hero, a good-hearted, handsome American from California, has amassed his fortune and traveled to Paris to find a wife to suit his new station. But he runs smack up against an ancient, impoverished family of French aristocrats whose pedigree is as long as Secretariat's. When the American falls in love with the family's daughter, the stage is set for a star-crossed romance that can only end in the worst possible way. Matthew Modine is the American, Christopher Newman (the name plays on the idea of Columbus and of U.S. upstarts). Diana Rigg is the widowed head of the Bellegarde family (another interesting name, playing on the French for "guard of beauty"). Aisling O'Sullivan is Madame Bellegarde's daughter, Claire, with whom Newman falls in love. All three sink their teeth into the kind of juicy role actors often dream about. Modine gives Newman an authentic American flair of innocence and intensity. Rigg's Madame Bellegarde is arrogant, sinister, even a bit scary. And O'Sullivan's Claire is impossibly — but convincingly — torn between her passion for Newman and her unflagging loyalty to her corrupt family's heritage. Surprisingly, if there is a leitmotif to the "The American," it's auditory, not visual — the incessant, ominous and threatening swish-swish of Madame Bellegarde's voluminous black skirts. The sound accents Madame's disdain (swish-swish) and underscores her vicious determination that only she will plot her daughter's future (SWISH-SWISH). James, like Dickens, earned money by serializing his novels. Episodes of "The American" appeared over the course of a year in Atlantic Monthly. Also like Dickens, James usually devises a dire moral crisis to test his central character's mettle. In "The American," the test comes when Newman discovers a long-hidden secret that would heap disgrace upon the Bellegardes. Madame's answer to Newman's threat defines him as much as it does her, and provides a taut and compelling conclusion to James' story. But, as the dead of winter looms, you're probably not in the mood for a happy ending anyway.

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