|First Edition Hardcover|
Robert Nathan’s prose has such an emotional texture that I find appealing, that all of these years later I sometimes return to this book simply to read that opening chapter to discover Jennie yet again, slipping through time. Part of a lost America is here, and certainly a bygone Central Park.
“In front of me, the spaced, even rows of lights shone yellow in the shadowy air; I heard the crisp sound of my own footsteps on the pavement; and behind me the hiss and whisper of traffic turned homeward at the end of day. The city sounds were muted and far away, they seemed to come from another time, from somewhere in the past, like the sound of summer, like bees in a meadow long ago. I walked on, as though through the quiet arches of a dream. My body seemed light, without weight, made up of evening air.”
Published in 1940 to immediate acclaim, Portrait of Jennie is Nathan’s best known novel with a legacy that is complemented by the 1948 film starring Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones. The film is generally faithful to the novel, and the modest differences never detract from the story’s resonance. This novel is a masterpiece of fantasy and romance. The measured prose, the plight of starving artist Eben Adams, and the ethereal Jennie all combine into a novel of power and substance. Portrait of Jennie is a ghost story and a love story, perhaps the best of its kind. Eben doesn’t realize that Jennie is a ghost, but as he encounters her and falls in love with her, his life is changed irrevocably. Nathan is tackling some heavy themes; grief and loss and love all at once, and because he is such a gifted writer, readers will find it difficult to escape the emotional content found in the novel’s 18 chapters. This was the novel that led me to Nathan’s other brilliant work, specifically Long After Summer, Stonecliff and Winter in April. There are many others, too. I have never read a book by Robert Nathan that I did not enjoy at some level. Film buffs will benefit by a viewing of the film which gives us, unintentionally, a taste of post-war New York. Many of Nathan’s books are available for Kindle. NOTE: The portrait of Jennie (Jennifer Jones) used in the film was painted by artist Robert Brackman and is reproduced as the cover of the Kindle version of Nathan’s novel.