Magill Book Reviews
“A remarkable book.”
“The Open Door gives juicy (imaginary) gossip about the WASPocracy of the late-nineteenth century–Henry and Alice James, Clarence King. But its real subjects, presented with clarity and force, are friendship, freedom, and meeting "the distinguished thing."
The former publisher of Basic Books, Maguire published her first novel, Thinner, Blonder, Whiter, in 2002; she had completed this second novel when she died of cancer in 2006. Pitch perfect from start to finish, the book is couched as the memoir of once-popular writer Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894): a manuscript left behind at her death to counter her image as "a long-suffering, martyred spinster." At its center is the vibrant, intriguing relationship between Woolson and Henry James, whom she meets in Paris in 1879. James calls her Fenimore (she’s the niece of The Last of the Mohicans author James Fenimore Cooper), and she calls him Harry; theirs was, Woolson says, "[a] marriage not of bodies, but of minds." The stuff of conventional memoir is judiciously tucked in (Woolson’s travels; her encroaching deafness; James’s sister, Alice, and his circle), but with an immediacy, embodiment and frankness 19th-century memoir almost always lacks. Through Maguire’s elegant pen, Woolson, a writer who was often pigeonholed as a mere verbal colorist, gets to establish her significance to James: "Whenever Harry left he always took something from me, a little piece of my own imagination." Maguire’s vivid depiction of those complex exchanges is utterly absorbing.