At a time when novels’ female characters are routinely declawed in order to make them “sympathetic,” Gus, the narrator of Robin Black’s resonant first novel Life Drawing, reminds us why less immediately likeable female characters can be so memorable and have such a vital role to play in literature. Gus is a prickly, sensitive, short-tempered, and very talented visual artist who put her relationship with her husband at risk when she had an affair. Several years later, she’s still dealing with—and at the same time drawing artistic inspiration from—the consequences.
When the story begins, Gus and her husband, Owen, a writer, have run away to the country, having rejected their long-standing Philadelphia community in favor of an isolated, remote farmhouse where they can try to repair what’s been broken. Gus implies that they left the city in part to resist further temptation, and, perhaps, to punish themselves. In their new situation, they have reached a fragile, imperfect stasis when a neighbor appears, a seemingly benign, even lovely older woman. The intersection of her story with theirs threatens the progress Gus and Owen have made and, it turns out, much more.
In other hands, a story about the pain a middle-aged wife feels for having betrayed her husband could be melodramatic. Instead, Life Drawing is sharp, propulsive, and full of energy, and one of the most insightful yet fast-paced books you’ll ever read about marriage. The voice of its intelligent, unsparing narrator echoes long after the last page. Here is Gus’s description of the love affair she succumbed to and regrets:
Bill and I had been tender with each other in the way only lovers with stolen time can sustain. Even in parting, gentle, gentle, gentle, like the tedious people who must unwrap every present slowly, leaving the paper entirely intact.
From those lines alone, you get a feeling for the complexity of her, the contempt laced with sympathy she feels for her former self. When considering the ways in which our past, current, and future selves nest one inside the other like Russian dolls, she asks, “How do any of us walk across the room without tripping over our own multitudes?” Appropriately, the question evokes Walt Whitman’s famous declaration, “I am large; I contain multitudes.” Life Drawing is a small story about artists that is packed with wisdom the way a bomb is packed with gunpowder; about the ways relationships can save or destroy us, sometimes simultaneously; about how work feeds life and vice versa; how even when we try to hide from the world it tracks us down and exacts its revenge. It is grand and ambitious like Whitman, and tiny and intimate like Whitman, and also, like Whitman, a poem.
Are you planning to read Life Drawing?