Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511
Garnet Bowen, formerly a journalist, now a part-time reviewer and essayist with ambitions to be a dramatist, lives somewhat hand-to-mouth, supporting his wife and three young children, hoping for something more permanent in the literary trade. He is equally elated and deflated by a commission for an article on European travel which will pay well but obliges him to go to the Continent. Bowen hates leaving London, and particularly despises anything to do with traveling in Europe.
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His reluctance to go abroad is further eroded by the chance to make a bit of money and to ingratiate himself with Bennie Hyman’s publishing firm, which he hopes may hire him on a permanent basis if he does a job for them in Portugal which is, by chance, the country his wife wishes to visit.
One of the publishing firm’s oldest novelists, Wulfstan Strether, who supposedly stopped writing some time before, has mailed Hyman’s company the manuscript of a new novel. The editor who had handled Strether’s work has died, and no one in the organization is quite sure if the new novel is really by Strether. Bennie Hyman asks Bowen to visit Strether and, without Strether knowing what he is up to, try to decide if the man claiming to be the novelist is the real thing or an impostor.
Bowen, reluctantly, sets off to the Continent by car (his wife driving), and by sea to take up a house rental in Portugal, which proves considerably less than satisfactory. Bowen meets the putative Strether, who is pleased to entertain someone from the London literary world, but he is not easily manipulated into proving unknowingly that he is the genuine article. Bowen is unhappy about trying to catch Strether out, and Barbara, his wife (when she finds out what Hyman has talked Bowen into doing), is sharply critical of her husband for agreeing to such an underhanded task.
Along the way, Bowen, suspicious of Continentals and irritated by the day-to-day details of travel, looks with a sharp eye at the liabilities of being abroad and finds that, as he expected, the family is exposed not only to food that occasions intestinal revolts but also to bad plumbing, insects, flies, and off-and-on peculation. They manage to escape from their first, unpleasant lodgings through the kindness of Harry Bannion, a retired bank executive and full-time practical joker, who provides temporary accommodation. Bowen’s mother-in-law, the subject of a running negative commentary by Bowen (kept conveniently to himself), takes ill back in Great Britain, and Barbara and the children return home.
Eventually Bowen winds up staying with Strether, who treats him with kindness and generosity but proves to be something of a pompous literary bore. Bowen, still unsure about whether Strether is bogus, and inclined to suspect him, decides that he will not tell Hyman anything. He would, however, like to know, and eventually, through two unrelated incidents, he does discover the truth not only about Strether but also about himself and his long-held aversion to doing anything which is personally discomforting.