Mrs. Osmond shares more than characters with its predecessor. It also shares a style: symphonic, wildly metaphorical, with nightmarish images of dead-end alleys and predatory beasts used to describe the smallest shifts of consciousness and social interaction. Like its source text, Mrs. Osmond investigates what happens when liberty runs up against those forces that would constrain it: personal history, secret plots, money, evil itself ... Mrs. Osmond is as impressive an act of stylistic channeling as anything I’ve read. Indeed, the best way to appreciate the novel is simply to list some of its many Jamesian moments — little turns of phrase that demand savoring on their own merits and send us scurrying back to the original for similar gems.
Banville’s decision to write Mrs. Osmond — a sequel to James’s The Portrait of a Lady — suggests a comfortable meeting of literary temperaments in a shared affinity for decorative language, but raises some questions as to their compatibility with regard to narrative architecture ...seizes the narrative baton from Henry James and quickly moves Isabel Osmond away from a mournful Gardencourt where, following the death of her cousin Ralph, she has allowed herself to be kissed by the suggestively virile Caspar Goodwood ...the incident-packed denouement of Mrs. Osmond cannot compensate for the stasis of much of the novel’s length, and the many passages in which Banville’s luxuriant prose feels a trifle excessive...Banville picks over the bones of The Portrait of a Lady, offering us beautifully phrased set-pieces and often exquisite minor portraiture rather than narrative energy ...goes beyond what the reader might have previously encountered in Banville’s often underplotted fiction.
Mrs. Osmond begins with the knowledge that Isabel’s marriage has been a mistake. Much of the action consists of her going here and there, meeting various characters and telling them about it. When the book’s climax finally does come, Isabel manages to extricate herself from her past in a relatively simple fashion. This has the curious effect of making one wonder if her plight in the first book was really all that dire, and whether one’s sympathy for her was misplaced. From this perspective, oddly enough, Banville’s homage reduces the object it venerates ... Stylistically, Mrs. Osmond is a triumph that contains the seeds of its own undoing. Banville’s ability to channel James’s style and prose rhythms is astonishing. I can’t imagine anyone who could have done it better. He knows the period, places and society of which he speaks ... This is the difficulty embedded within Banville’s project. There’s something fanatical about it. And no matter what, he’s in a bind. The pace of the novel isn’t exactly swift. And the more longueurs Banville provides in order to reinforce the Jamesian mood and manner, the more tedious the novel becomes. It’s easy to forgive James for keeping to a pace as ruminative and slow as the age he lived in; with Banville, it feels willful to the point of perversity. And yet, without these longueurs, there would be a reduction in fidelity to the original. It’s a no-win situation. The 'better' the book is, the worse it is.