The plot of this novel would not be out of place in a Mills and Boon romance, but whereas it could be argued that the M&B would leave little to the imagination, Henry James leaves just about everything!
This is the quote which for me summed up the reading experience:
"The young man, in other words, unconfusedly smiled - though indeed as if assenting, from principle and habit, to more than he understood."
In a nutshell, a smooth Italian prince (Amerigo) and an American beauty (Charlotte) enjoy a connection. They click. I can't call it an affair, because that much information is not provided. All we know is that they delight in each others' company for a time, but that neither has the financial resources to commit to any more permanent association. Then, each of them is "bought" in as gentle, quiet and loving a way as possible.
An older English matchmaker (Fanny Assingham) who witnessed their connection and who has a soft-spot for the Prince proposes him to a sweet and innocent American Daddy's girl (Maggie). Maggie and her very rich, very wonderful widowed father (Adam) worship each other, and when Maggie's marriage sees fortune hunters beginning to move in on Adam, Fanny and Maggie both propose Charlotte (who just happens to have been a girlhood friend of Maggie, and of whose 'connection' with her husband Maggie is blissfully unaware) as the perfect solution.
Charlotte and Adam get married, while Maggie and Adam continue their previous close and exclusive filial relationship. This leaves Charlotte and Amerigo space to reform their own connection (some reviewers call it adultery, but the extent of their connection is so airy, it is impossible to imagine them doing anything so excrutiatingly impolite).
Maggie eventually has her suspicion of their growing infidelity confirmed through a chance encounter with a dealer in antiquities who had witnessed an exchange between Charlotte and Amerigo on the eve of Maggie's wedding... an exchange centering around an exquisite golden bowl with a crack in it... a bowl the Prince refuses to purchase (the crack being a bad omen), which Charlotte cannot afford to purchase, which Maggie does purchase, and which Fanny (deliberately and symbolically) smashes. Amerigo is told of Maggie's discovery, but Charlotte is deliberately kept in the dark by them both. Meanwhile Maggie maneuvres her father into taking Charlotte off to America, leaving her in full possession of the Prince, who now has eyes only for her (apparently supremely impressed by the smooth diplomacy and manipulative skill she has suddenly demonstrated).
So much for the action. The real story exists in the vague and ambiguous interwoven tangles of selfishness and selflessness which make up each character. For me the whole story is about getting what you want without rocking the boat... it's all about reading between the lines, manipulating the others (and your own feelings) without ever coming right out and saying directly what is meant... and ultimately, I found the artificiality of this discourse - both internal and external - quite unsatisfying.
As an example, here is a passage in which Charlotte and Amerigo convince themselves that in going with the flow and gratifying their own desires, they are selflessly clearing the path for their spouses to do the same.
"A large response, as he looked at her, came into his face, a light of excited perception, all his own, in the glory of which – as it almost might be called – what he gave her back had the value of what she had given him. ‘They’re extraordinarily happy.’
Oh Charlotte’s measure of it was only too full. ‘Beatifically.’ [...]
‘I’m not afraid.’
He wondered for a moment. ‘Not afraid of what?’
‘Well, generally, of some beastly mistake. Especially of any mistake founded on one’s idea of their difference. For that idea,’ Charlotte developed, ‘positively makes one so tender.’
‘Ah but rather!’
‘Well then there it is. I can’t put myself into Maggie’s skin – I can’t, as I say. It’s not my fit – I shouldn’t be able, as I see it, to breathe in it. But I can feel that I’d do anything to shield it from a bruise. Tender as I am for her too,’ she went on, ‘I think I’m still more so for my husband. He’s in truth of a sweet simplicity – !’
The Prince turned over a while the sweet simplicity of Mr Verver. ‘Well, I don’t know that I can choose. At night all cats are grey. I only see how, for so many reasons, we ought to stand toward them – and how, to do ourselves justice, we do. It represents for us a conscious care –’
‘Of every hour, literally,’ said Charlotte. She could rise to the highest measure of the facts. ‘And for which we must trust each other – !’
‘Oh as we trust the saints in glory. Fortunately,’ the Prince hastened to add, ‘we can.’ With which, as for the full assurance and the pledge it involved, each hand instinctively found the other. ‘It’s all too wonderful.’
Firmly and gravely she kept his hand. ‘It’s too beautiful.’ [...]
‘It’s sacred,’ he said at last."
I will leave the final word on this book to Gore Vidal, who pointed out the real deficiency in this novel... it is a tale of forces, but it contains no Love. The characters skirt around the edges of talking about love all the time, but ultimately, it is their own selfish desire for internal security and selfish desire to appear externally selfless which leaves them feeling as hollow, empty and flawed as the golden bowl itself.