James' second novel sets its American protagonists in Europe, destination for the fashionable rich of the late nineteenth century holidaying among the architectural and artistic gems of the Old World, a theme to be repeated in several later novels including The Portrait of a Lady. Compared with that masterpiece, the novel is a little slow to develop, although it makes up for this in depth and from Chapter eight when arrival of the capricious and alluring Christina Light fires the tension which permeates the rest of the narrative.
Roderick Hudson, an attractive young sculptor from a modest background in the Eastern United States, impresses Rowland Mallet with a particularly brilliant figure of a youth drinking from a gourd. Mallet, a rich amateur connoisseur of the arts and an inveterate sojourner in Europe, senses a bright future for the young man and persuades Hudson to accompany him to Rome in order to settle down and draw inspiration from the classics.
After a promising start however, Hudson's loss of motivation and associated moral decline leads mentor and protégée into mutual conflict, exacerbated by Mallet's disgust for Hudson's cavalier treatment of his fiancée Mary Garland having fallen under the spell of Christina Light. Mallet, himself in love with Mary, is the personification of generosity, and his efforts to rekindle his protégée's talent cause us to wonder at his patience in the face of the churlish treatment he receives from the young sculptor. The tragedy is that the meteoric Hudson isn't by any means all bad, for as well as lack of moral fibre and lapses into bad temper he has charm and sensibility.
Paradoxically Rowland Mallet figures more than Roderick Hudson, for James uses the former as a central hub for the plot. Sometimes priggish, a defect more than compensated for by charisma, tact and loyalty, Mallet elicits our sympathy in his generosity, and his altruistic efforts to prevent Hudson from deserting Mary for Christina. One feels James too has sympathy for him as in the final chapter Mallet is given the novel's last line.
As the story unfolds against the spellbinding beauty of the ancient city, James weaves his own magic in a rich brew of finely drawn scenes, not least the romantic meeting of Mallet with Christina Light and Hudson in the Coliseum, couched in the unadorned prose (for the times) that characterised his earlier novels. It's James before his style became convoluted.
Thinking back over the novel in making this review,the reviewer realised what a good book this is.