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The Death of the Heart (1938)

by Elizabeth Bowen

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,6753810,299 (3.75)115
The Death of the Heart is perhaps Elizabeth Bowen's best-known book. As she deftly and delicately exposes the cruelty that lurks behind the polished surfaces of conventional society, Bowen reveals herself as a masterful novelist who combines a sense of humor with a devastating gift for divining human motivations. In this piercing story of innocence betrayed set in the thirties, the orphaned Portia is stranded in the sophisticated and politely treacherous world of her wealthy half-brother's home in London.There she encounters the attractive, carefree cad Eddie. To him, Portia is at once child and woman, and her fears her gushing love. To her, Eddie is the only reason to be alive. But when Eddie follows Portia to a sea-side resort, the flash of a cigarette lighter in a darkened cinema illuminates a stunning romantic betrayal--and sets in motion one of the most moving and desperate flights of the heart in modern literature.… (more)
  1. 30
    The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (WSB7)
    WSB7: Both have the feeling of restraint/seil-restraint foregrounded.
  2. 00
    What Maisie Knew by Henry James (Nickelini)
  3. 00
    A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor (shaunie)
    shaunie: A Game of Hide and Seek is much more similar to Bowen than Taylor's other books, which are usually much more straightforwardly enjoyable. Here, as with Bowen, the writing's very impressive but it's frequently hard going.
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Showing 1-5 of 32 (next | show all)
How sharply and poignantly the writing cuts. This book is a gorgeous vessel full of poison and (mostly) despicable people. There is a keen reading pleasure to be had, though, despite the cruelty.

Oh, those polite conversations over tea – fine china, scones, crumpets, it’s all there. There are gaping maws underneath all that polish, and they will swallow you whole if you are not careful.

“One thing one must learn is, how to confront people that at that particular moment one cannot bear to meet.”

“In that airy vivacious house, all mirrors and polish, there was no place where the shadows lodged, no point where feeling could thicken.”


Even when the object is Eddie (=let me teach you everything you need to know about abusive relationships, and aren’t you a darling to let me, aren’t you sweet…), I do like things Bowen has to say about love. “One solid pleasure of love is to check up together on what has happened.”

As soon as Portia appears on the page for the first time, you know that she will break, that she will dissolve – the question is only of how, not if and when. Bowen has no mercy for anyone. Portia puts sharp knives of her clear-eyed innocence into the empty people around her, and they cannot take it.

It is so right that this novel should end with a door opening.

P.S. I should definitely read more Bowen, being careful not to overdose. ( )
  Alexandra_book_life | Dec 15, 2023 |
There's a bit in one of Eddie Izzard's comedy shows where she describes a genre of British film that she calls A Room with a View with a Staircase and a Pond films, where all the acting is very good but the dramatic tension consists of people opening doors meaningfully and making mundane statements that are nonetheless supposed to be highly if cryptically fraught.

I thought of that bit more than once while reading this book, where feelings are almost always intimated and suggested and charged and obscured.

Written in the late '30s, The Death of the Heart is about a naive 16-year-old called Portia who, recently orphaned, goes to live in London with her well-off and much older half-brother and his wife. Neither brother nor sister-in-law are happy to have her there. Portia plainly wants to have them like her, but can't understand that she's seen as a bit of an embarrassment and an obstacle in their rather jaded lives—she clearly reminds them that they're unhappy.

Elizabeth Bowen has some beautifully observed character moments throughout the book, some deliciously mean one-liners too, and I could believe in many (though not all) of her characters as real people. Yet where The Death of the Heart didn't work for me—apart from the too-abrupt ending—was in how Bowen had the characters relate to one another. It's not that I don't believe that people can be cynical and petty in how they dealt with one another. There was just something about the register in which Bowen conveyed their interactions, something about the why behind their actions, that struck me as just a bit too... well, A Room With a View with a Staircase and a Pond. ( )
  siriaeve | Dec 4, 2023 |
Love the way this lady describes people. Describing the words and actions of middle-class English people who take themselves so seriously, with comical words, you get such a clear image of them, it makes me laugh out loud. ( )
  burritapal | Oct 23, 2022 |
This is the story of a 16 year old orphan who comes to live with her fashionable half brother and his wife. The girl is completely emotionally needy and innocent but her brother and sister-in-law are completely unable to comfort her, and she becomes romantically involved with a cad.

Throughout the novel there is this incredible suspense about whether she will make a disastrous decision to consummate their relationship. I won't disclose what happens, but the tension this uncertainty creates leads you to focus on tiny, very finely wrought descriptions of social interaction and expression. Comparisons with Henry James are entirely appropriate.

Although there is an undertone about the loss of romantic naivete and trust, I think there is another interesting theme about the perverse relationship between writers and the people they write about. Early in the novel, the sister-in-law discovers the girl's diary and eagerly consumes her descriptions about herself. Though the sister-in-law laughs at the school-girl observations and concerns, she also feels judged and spied upon. I think Elizabeth Bowen was commenting on writing about people you know can poison relationships.

I think I like this book more the more I think about it. ( )
2 vote aprille | Oct 14, 2022 |
This was a sadly cynical and very aptly named novel. Portia, a sixteen year old orphan who is just beginning to search for understanding of what love means, finds herself living with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna. While Portia studies Anna to see what being a woman should be, Anna dislikes Portia, primarily because Portia is too honest an observer. All the adults in this book live in a kind of masquerade of life, with a cloud of dishonesty hovering over them constantly, while Portia is unschooled in deception and fails to understand that almost no one can be taken at face value.

Along the way, Portia opens her heart to a young man who has been present because of his attempts to woo Anna. This is English society at its worst, a world of sexual innuendo and flirtatious games in which everyone is hurt. Poor Portia is like a lamb at slaughter, and everyone seems to feel free to play with her feelings and sensibilities. There is the added sorrow of knowing this girl has just lost her mother and is in a strange place that makes some of their actions seem excessively cruel and unfeeling.

Portia’s encounters with life living in hotels with her mother, Irene; living in London with Thomas and Anna, and living for the spring at the beach in Searle with Anna’s former governess, give her an overview of different classes and strata and seem to indicate to the reader that love is fairly non-existent. You trust others at your own peril.

This book had moments in which I was sure it would be a 5-star read for me. But, in the end, the ending was somehow unsatisfactory. I understood the point being made, and perhaps it could not have ended differently, but it felt somewhat abrupt and incomplete. I have been mulling it overnight and this morning, and I think we are meant to feel the bleakness of Portia’s position and perhaps that this is life and more story would yield no different outcome.

I have perhaps said too much in this review. I never like to give away too much. But, I am sincerely wishing I had read this with at least one other person because there is so much here to grapple with and I’m unsure that I have skimmed the surface, let alone plumbed the depths. If you like a book that makes you puzzle over life, this one will. ( )
1 vote mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
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That mornining's ice, no more than brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.
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The Death of the Heart is perhaps Elizabeth Bowen's best-known book. As she deftly and delicately exposes the cruelty that lurks behind the polished surfaces of conventional society, Bowen reveals herself as a masterful novelist who combines a sense of humor with a devastating gift for divining human motivations. In this piercing story of innocence betrayed set in the thirties, the orphaned Portia is stranded in the sophisticated and politely treacherous world of her wealthy half-brother's home in London.There she encounters the attractive, carefree cad Eddie. To him, Portia is at once child and woman, and her fears her gushing love. To her, Eddie is the only reason to be alive. But when Eddie follows Portia to a sea-side resort, the flash of a cigarette lighter in a darkened cinema illuminates a stunning romantic betrayal--and sets in motion one of the most moving and desperate flights of the heart in modern literature.

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