Everyday Drama: an artist’s rendering

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Title: Life Drawing

Author: Robin Black

Genre: Literary Fiction

Publishing info: On sale July 15, 2014 from Random House!

How did I get this book: Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) from Netgalley

Jukebox: Sometimes a song is all about the atmosphere. “Service Bell,” a collaboration between Feist and Grizzly Bear, holds layers of emotions that culminate in a final swell of intermingling voices. I’ve listened to this song so many times and I still haven’t figured out all the layers, just as I haven’t yet understood all of Life Drawing‘s layers either:

In a world where every character must have a deep flaw or painful childhood, where we overdramatize our personal lives on TV and on Facebook, I wondered whether to bother getting to know Augusta, the main character and narrator of Robin Black’s Life Drawing. As I acquainted myself with her in the first few chapters, I thought, “just another example of someone’s overly-hyped personal life.” After all, Augusta lost family members too early: her mother from a brain aneurysm when she was seven, her older sister to cancer, and finally her father as his memories succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Then Gus had an affair with a married man. She confessed to Owen, her husband. They moved to the countryside to focus on their work (painting and writing) and each other. But instead they stopped having meaningful conversations.

A paragraph full of terrible memories and labels. Abandoned child. Unfaithful spouse. Widow. Unfortunately, tragedies like these appear everywhere and everyday until they lose their ability to affect the observer. Just yesterday I was watching The Good Wife, whose main character must also deal with a cheating spouse. Today, as I waited in line in Walgreens, I scanned the cover of People magazine, which seems to feature a new celebrity affair  every week. How casually we treat life-changing events. So I ask again, why take precious time to understand how Augusta’s painful past has shaped her? Why bother?

As Robin Black led me through Gus’s quiet daily life, I found it worth my while to bother. Much like John Steinbeck in Cannery Row, Robin Black paints a portrait of a single subject through past experiences. But instead of a small, quirky, run-down town, she fleshes out a human being, formed and hardened and stiffened by too many tragedies. Just like the title states, Life Drawing is a portrait of a human being. What makes Black’s portrayal different from all those melodramatic TV shows is her understanding of how to handle drama: Drama doesn’t stop being important after the front-page headlines, after the labels. Drama is necessary. It’s in all our lives. And it deserves self-reflection and acknowledgment.

Black doesn’t hide the drama of Gus’s life. In fact, she gives it to us right at the beginning:

In the days leading up to my husband Owen’s death, he visited Alison’s house every afternoon.

There it is. Tragedy in the first sentence. Though Black starts out with the broad brush strokes of one of the many tragedies in Gus’s life, she devotes the rest of the novel to Gus’s self-reflection. Like little dabs of a paintbrush giving blue depth to what would otherwise just be another white, fluffy cloud, Black develops Gus with the personal touches that slowly makes her particular blend of tragedies become more than everyday drama.

Just as acquaintances become friends by spending time together, Black acquaints us with Gus on a day-by-day basis. We see her and Owen suffer through dinner without any meaningful conversation, struggle with her as she tries to branch out from landscapes and paint people only to erase them when they look lifeless. We live Gus’s life for what seems like several months until somewhere in the middle of Chapter Nine, Gus is more than an acquaintance. Subtly, Black attunes us to every fluctuation in Gus and Owen’s careful balance of resentful companionship.

Another channel through which Gus verbalizes her self-reflection is Alison, the British, middle-aged neighbor. Alison embraces all of Gus’s past mistakes and broken trust with Owen, becoming a close friend. *Spoiler Alert* When Alison’s daughter, Nora, falls in love with Owen, *Spoiler Alert Over* all of Gus’s self-reflection finally crystallizes into her own, starkly painful, life drawing: it is finally clear that her present self cannot escape her past mistakes and tragedies.

Life Drawing. The title has more than one meaning: this novel is Gus’s own life drawing, but Gus also deals with her own fear of painting life drawings. Throughout the novel, Gus works on a new project, painting portraits, of dead WWI soldiers in various rooms of her house as if they were alive. Yet she fears that she cannot do justice to these poor, dead, boys and literally paints around them, recreating her kitchen, her front porch, in perfect detail while leaving an empty space for a body. Like Gus’s struggle to paint people, Black’s novel is a struggle. She writes around Gus’s memories, writes of Gus’s strained country life, in the hopes of showing how our pasts will influence the rest of our lives. Through her thoughtful and thorough approach to Gus’s story, Black does justice to her deeply flawed character. Black’s life drawing is truly alive.

Rating: 8 – loved it: would definitely recommend, solid characters, writing, plot; might reread in a couple years

 

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