Sunday, April 29, 2007

Black and White

I saw Dani Shapiro's new novel in a bookstore while we were on vacation and was kind of intrigued, because I liked her last novel and this one is obviously based on Sally Mann, whom I like as well. Then I read this excerpt from the first chapter (sorry if it's Times Selected), and I was even more eager to read the book because part of it is set in a few blocks of New York that I know about as well as I know any place I haven't actually lived.

It's an interesting book, though ultimately, I think, kind of irritating. It's about Clara Brodeur, daughter and model of famous photographer Ruth Dunne. Clara has spent the last 14 years of her life escaping her mother and the naked photographs her mother took of her as a child. Now Ruth is dying, and Clara needs to face her. (Don't you think I should get a job writing summaries?!)

What's interesting? Well, the story, for one thing. Shapiro is just a skilled writer, though the back and forth between the present and a fairly linear account of the past is a bit standard. Also interesting are the ethical questions about whether a mother is most responsible to her art or her child. And I liked the daily life pieces (you know, that contemporary women's literary realism thing I go for).

What's irritating? Well, frankly, the main character, and that's a problem. My first reaction to finding Clara kind of unbelievable was to doubt myself: I've never been photographed naked and unwilling by my mother the famous artist, so how can I say it's unrealistic for Clara to run away, refuse to tell her own daughter about her past, and constantly feel the world breaking down into blurry little pieces? Then I wondered whether Shapiro meant her to be an annoying character. But then I thought no, the responsibility of the novelist is to make the unfamiliar, the unknown, the that which is not me, real, and I'm not quite sure Shapiro succeeds in this case.

[Erica Wagner's review in the NY Times is just plain weird. The USA Today review is just plain stupid. This one is good (LA Times). Yikes: scary book party photo.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am repelled by Dani Shapiro.