I have never read a Henry James work that I haven't had to restart more than a couple of times before reaching the lightbulb moment of understanding. I was even afraid it would never come in 'The Ambassadors'. James's prose is at its densest and most convoluted here, and demands large amounts of concentration, but once you are 'in', you'll be glad you made the effort. It is a beautiful, comic, ironic, subtley-drawn story of a man's personal crisis in the afternoon of his life, set against the background of one of the most artistic, romantic and complex cities in the world.
Lambert Strether is 'our friend' - an amiable, naive, middle-aged American charged with the retrieval of his 'friend's' - the formidable Mrs Newsome's - son, Chad, from his suspected immoral lifestyle in Paris. Strether's personal, social and economic future all hang on his successfully prying Chad away and bringing him safely back to the family nest, where the family business and a strategic marriage await him. However, all does not go according to plan. Seduced by the charms of Paris and its delightful inhabitants, Strether experiences something of a second youth, throwing himself giddily into the social life of a city that is worlds apart from his conservative, uptight, native home of Woollett. So dazzled is Strether that he allows himself to be pleasantly manipulated and exploited by those around him, whose personal interests are in direct opposition to his own. Poor Strether is always several paces behind, and doesn't seem to know what's good for him, but this makes him all the more loveable.
James' linguistic style is at its most extravagant here - every utterance, glance, movement, or silence, is dissected, analysed, and contrasted ad nauseam. The characters are largely self-engrossed, indolent creatures, who spend their time speaking in allusions and metaphor while they praise people for being 'wonderful', 'good' and 'free', and criticize those who don't seem to appreciate the virtues of their decadent lifestyles. James has a fine old time poking fun at all parties involved, including, I suspect, himself. He paints Parisian society as enticing and splendid, yet ultimately deceptive and disillusioning. It brings about Strether's ruin, but we doubt he'd have chosen it any other way.
Henry James is not to everyone's taste, and I suspect that The Ambassadors is the most challenging of his novels. Essentially, it is largely some waffle about rather pretentious, unsympathetic people who do nothing in particular, expressed in tortuous (and sometimes torturous) prose. But there is something about that which is brilliant in itself.