The Art of Seeing: A Novel [NOOK Book]


As a child, the flamboyant, brooding, and beautiful Rozzie was always the star of her family -- especially in her younger sister Jemma's eyes. So when Rozzie takes up acting and, as a teenager, wins a part in a major motion picture, life changes irrevocably for both sisters. Rozzie is catapulted into the chaotic adult world of celebrity while Jemma travels to movie sets and relishes her sister's fame -- never seeing the strain that the spotlight puts on Rozzie. Soon Jemma develops her own artistic ambitions as a ...
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The Art of Seeing: A Novel

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As a child, the flamboyant, brooding, and beautiful Rozzie was always the star of her family -- especially in her younger sister Jemma's eyes. So when Rozzie takes up acting and, as a teenager, wins a part in a major motion picture, life changes irrevocably for both sisters. Rozzie is catapulted into the chaotic adult world of celebrity while Jemma travels to movie sets and relishes her sister's fame -- never seeing the strain that the spotlight puts on Rozzie. Soon Jemma develops her own artistic ambitions as a photographer, and Rozzie is forced to reveal the secret she has kept from her family for years -- a rare eye condition that threatens her vision. Only then does Jemma begin to see the truth about her sister and herself -- a reality that threatens the delicate balance of their relationship.

A moving and profound story about family, celebrity, envy, and ultimately love, The Art of Seeing is a brilliant exploration of the powerful and enduring connection between sisters.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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"When you are a younger sister, you are born with an eye not on the horizon, but on the hem of a shirt just ahead." So begins Cammie McGovern's graceful and discerning novel about two artistic and ambitious sisters, and the way their lives are inescapably tied to -- and shaped by -- one another's.

Suburban kids, they grow up in the 1970s and early '80s: Jemma is the younger, more cautious sister, while Rozzie, her elder, is confident and charismatic. As a teenager, Jemma develops an interest in photography, but her fledgling talent seems unimpressive when Rozzie, just two years older, heads to L.A. to study acting and wins a major Hollywood contract.

Rozzie's fame is sudden, and her prolonged absence from home is disquieting. But her mood swings and unpredictable behavior is even more upsetting. The sisters' relationship deteriorates, and the resulting misunderstandings and betrayals threaten to derail Jemma's life. Ultimately, Rozzie is forced to disclose a secret she has been hiding for years -- that she is losing her vision.

In her first novel, Cammie McGovern has crafted a beautiful story of two sisters trying to see the truth about themselves and each other. (Fall 2002 Selection)

Library Journal
McGovern's first novel examines the relationship between two sisters, Rozzie and Jemma Phillips. Younger sister Jemma watches from the sidelines as Rozzie blossoms into a 17-year-old beauty and movie actress with a promising career. Rozzie invites Jemma to work on the movie set, and Jemma begins to photograph the actors, especially Rozzie, in hopes of gaining some understanding of her sister's seemingly glamorous life. What she doesn't know is that Rozzie is struggling with a rare condition, concealed from her family, which leads to blindness. This secret leads to misunderstandings and betrayals between the sisters. After Rozzie is hospitalized and her family learns of her condition, the sisters begin to communicate. Gradually, they are able to understand and forgive each other. What results is a moving exploration of the relationship between two talented sisters and their misconceptions about one another's experiences. McGovern's clever use of flashbacks highlights the problems that each has in "seeing" the other. The book will be especially appealing to women and is recommended for large public libraries. - Cheryl L. Conway, Univ. of Arkansas Lib., Fayetteville Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A first novel from storywriter McGovern (a Nelson Algren Award winner), sister of actress Elizabeth McGovern, depicts the strained affection between a successful actress and her younger sibling. Rozzie was a bright kid whom everyone knew would go on to big things. Attractive, vivacious, and outgoing, she was well liked by all-and idolized by her younger sister Jemma, who managed to trade on her sister's popularity to boost her own. In high school, Rozzie joined the drama society and became such a success that she was encouraged to make a career of acting. Eventually, while still in her teens, she was offered a movie role and quit school to go to Hollywood. This, of course, put Jemma in even greater awe of her. By no means a wallflower, Jemma was nevertheless a thoroughly normal American schoolgirl-she joined the photography club, worked part-time at the local grocery, had crushes on boys-and the thrill of having a movie star in the family was immense, especially when Rozzie would fly Jemma out to locations and let her hobnob with the cast. Unfortunately, Rozzie's luck is short-lived, and she begins to suffer a loss of eyesight not long after her first flush of success. A series of operations fails, and she is soon nearly blind. By this time Jemma has gone to art school and taken up photography as her (somewhat precarious) career. Although she and Rozzie have had their tensions in the past, they remain on good terms in spite of some submerged resentment in Jemma of her sister's easy success. But when Jemma is offered a lot of money by a supermarket tabloid for some pictures she secretly took of Rozzie after she had lost her sight, the temptation proves very great. Would it be sleazy toadvance her career on her sister, or just good business sense? Blood is thicker than water, after all, but the real world can be a strangely bloodless place. A well-told tale of love and jealousy: good characters and a strong narrative voice. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743234054
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 5/15/2007
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 474,364
  • File size: 337 KB

Meet the Author

Cammie McGovern was a Stegner Fellow and received the Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. Her fiction has been published in Redbook, Seventeen, Glimmer Train, TriQuarterly, and other journals. She is the author of a second novel, Eye Contact. Please visit
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Read an Excerpt

When you are a younger sister, you are born with an eye not on the horizon, but on the hem of a shirt just ahead, the flash of a ponytail whipping side to side. You learn to hold still and trace the movement of another up the street, into a tree, onto a branch that will -- you can see it before it happens -- give way to a fall that will break her arm so seriously there will be talk of amputation. "They almost chopped it off, and then they didn't," she will say, hacking a line on her cast, triumphantly, already just a little theatrically.

She's good at telling stories, drawing a crowd of neighborhood kids and moving through them, reenacting the fall as if it were all a comedy act. Only you understand how bad it might have been -- that an arm is a thing one doesn't easily live without -- that you have to be careful, you have to be still. You can't just run after some line in the distance and not expect sooner or later to get hit by something: a Mack truck, a tornado, boys playing hockey where they shouldn't.

Your stillness, you believe, holds her back, just enough to keep her alive. There is an invisible cord between you that will break if you do not watch her carefully because you do have an effect. Your eyes can stop her, on a street corner, in conversation, in the nick of time. To everyone else you look like the quiet one, but only you know -- even in your silence and your stair-sitting ways -- you have all the power.

Or you did.

Jemma, 1975
By the second week of kindergarten everyone has adjusted but me. The three girls with the prettiest names -- Hayley, Stephanie, and Claire -- and the longest, straightest hair have formed a friendship that I watch alone, from the outside. They share secrets and jacks and make rules that everyone else obeys. "No drinking from that water fountain in the morning. No drinking from that fountain ever."

Though I try to be invisible, a complicated process that involves walking without letting my toes touch the inside of my shoes, it is hard. Sometimes, they notice me, even so. Once they announce that because I have worn a purple shirt that day, no one is allowed to talk to me. Usually no one does talk to me, but this sounds so final that a wave of terror washes through me and I wet my pants on the spot. Only I know it has happened because I am sitting in a wooden chair hollowed out for fannies. For the next hour and fifteen minutes, I neither speak nor move. Finally, when a teacher asks if everything is all right, I ask if she could please get my sister. Something in my voice must communicate the urgency because, a few minutes later, Rozzie is standing in front of me, delighted to have been called out from her class. In this room, everyone is younger and watches her and she knows it.

She bends down in front of me, as if she were the mother and has to accommodate an enormous height difference. "What is it?" she says, and I know she is drawing even more attention to herself, that her voice is louder than it needs to be if I am the only person meant to hear. Still, it doesn't matter. I am so grateful to see her, it is all I can do not to cry on the spot and compound my problem.

"I wet my pants," I whisper.

She seems neither put off nor particularly surprised. "Why?" she asks, as if I might have done this for a reason.

"They said my shirt was purple."

"Your shirt is purple."

"I didn't know, though. Now no one can talk to me."

She does what I have been waiting for her to do because she is brave like this: she turns around and stares at the group. "Who said that?" she asks. I point to the triumvirate of girls who are in the corner, trading barrettes. She walks over to them. "Did you tell my sister there's something wrong with her shirt?"

They blink up at her, frightened. She is only two years older, but it seems much more. In this moment, she appears capable of doing anything a teacher might do: delivering a lecture, a warning, a time-out. Instead, she stands in front of them, her hands on her hips. "That's pathetic," she says, using a word I know but have never said out loud. "Making something up just to make someone else feel bad is mean and pathetic."

They are more contrite than any punishment would have made them. All three look down. One -- Stephanie -- starts to cry. In that instant, I love Rozzie more than I have ever loved anyone else my whole life, including my mother. Maybe it will be all right, I think, my stomach loosening, my heart lifting. Rozzie is here.

Later, Rozzie goes out of the room, takes off her own tights, and comes back in. She hands them to me in a tight ball in her fist. As she does this, she leans into my ear. She smells like her shampoo, Clairol Herbal Essence, the way I imagine a jungle must smell. "Clean the chair with your skirt when you stand up," she whispers. This time no one can see her lips move. I do as she tells me, powerless to her spell. And it works. No one sits in the damp chair and figures out the truth. I've miraculously gotten away with a transgression I was sure I'd be paying for the rest of my life.

After Rozzie's visit, I am transformed, no longer invisible. Other kids make overtures with their paste brushes. ("You need this?" they ask. "Okay," I say.) People share their crayons, pinwheels, toilet paper under stall doors. One girl lets me wear her yarn wig for twenty minutes.

And then one day one of the triumvirate invites me to join their jacks circle at recess. It's Hayley, the same one Rozzie yelled at, and I know it isn't me she wants, but my sister. The scorn has sat with her, festered into a clawing ache, a dark need. I am a pathway to my sister's approval. All I need to do is accept this role, as easy as breathing, forever and ever, amen. And I do.

"Okay," I say, taking the smooth rubber ball in my hand, the spiny metal jacks. I am not good at jacks, but this time is different, I am not myself, not the crybaby who gets homesick an hour into school. I am a bridge -- a tangible connection between these girls and Rozzie. As such, I make it, no problem, to foursies. I hand the jacks away.

Everything is going to be all right.

Then I look up and see Rozzie on the far side of the playground, flying around on the rings. She is good at this and can make it around five times without stopping. The other girls look up and see this, too. They draw a line with their eyes, so that it's not invisible anymore, this force that connects us. Others see it, too, and in that instant, I believe I can travel back and forth, switch bodies on the spot and be her for a while, feel what it's like to move unafraid, to fly in a circle, my dress hiked up, my underwear showing. To be watched all the time and want that. I also know how dangerous this is. That underwear, like belly buttons and family secrets, shouldn't show.

There will be a price to pay for joining this jacks circle, turning my caution watch into a ticket for popularity. It means no one is watching either one of us. It means anyone, at any minute, could fall.

Jemma, present
At the hospital the only difference between night and day is the number of nurses on duty. Night shift loses three, half the floor staff. So the ones on are thinner and move faster; they are also quirkier -- women who've made the choice to be awake while everyone else sleeps. Though they have more to do, they sometimes talk longer; occasionally I will hear a whole life story: "Married one man I didn't love, another that I did. You want to know the difference in the end? Not much. Swear to God, not much."

One woman tells me, "I have a sister, too." For a long time she doesn't say any more, as if she is trying to decide which part to tell me. Finally she goes on, "Older, too. Like yours."

My sister lies between us, asleep finally, her face mostly obscured by bandages.

"Beautiful like her."

I smile and think: Don't start, please. Tell me anything else, just don't tell me this. And my face must show my inability to hear about other people's sisters because she stops and, for a long time, says nothing. Then she chooses the obvious, the standard: "My brother loves her. Has for years," nodding at Rozzie, changing whatever bag is dangling in the darkness above her.


"You want to know what your problem is?" Rozzie says to me, as if, lying here in this hospital room, she has no problems herself. She is eating her lunch, struggling with some applesauce, which she keeps missing as if the spoon has a mind of its own.

"Not really," I say. "But go ahead and tell me."

"Your problem is you don't know how to talk about yourself. You always deflect conversation away to other things."

I smile. "I don't want to talk about that."

I've gotten to know one nurse more than the others. Her name is Paula; she is tall, with short hair and big arms and, in the dark, can look like a man. She is the only one who can take Rozzie's vitals at night without waking her. Often she'll write the stats she gets -- temperature, blood pressure -- on the back of her hand. "Forgot my damn sheets," she'll say.

Once I ask, "Do you have to keep track of all this?"

Even in the dark, I can see her roll her eyes. "Oh yeah. Everything that goes in, everything that comes out. We got a whole file of this crap back there."

Later that night I run into her off duty by the vending machines. She has a cup of coffee in one hand and a pack of cigarettes in the other.

"That's a surprise," I say, pointing to the cigarettes.

"Oh, please."

I ask her if I can have one and she looks pleased, shakes two loose, and holds out the pack. I appreciate Paula because I've never once seen her hover with a piteous expression on her face, never felt her eyes on me in search of clues. She must not realize who Rozzie is, must think of her only as another patient on a floor of many. To Paula we're paperwork, vital stats to lose track of, nothing more. To the rest, we're a story they're telling at home -- not an unkind one, but weighted just the same. She's so nice, I can hear them tell their families. You wouldn't believe how sweet she is.

Paula doesn't care one way or another. She lights my cigarette and then looks around for something to talk about. She points to a Time magazine with a cover story on children shooting their classmates: "Can you believe that shit?"

Sitting beside her reminds me we are still a part of the world at large, that we should read these stories and have opinions on them. Many people have written to Rozzie or sent care packages -- boxes of food I open and, for the most part, eat myself -- giving me the impression that we are the only people in the news, which of course isn't true. Halfway through our cigarettes, Paula asks how long we've lived in Minnesota.

"We don't live here. We just came for the treatment."

"No kidding." Paula seems shocked. "But you've got the accent."

I wonder if this is true. We have always sounded like one another, our voices indistinguishable on the phone. Are we both, in an effort to blend, starting to sound like the nurses around us?

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Reading Group Guide

The Art of Seeing by Cammie McGovern

Reading Group Guide


The Art of Seeing chronicles the intricately woven lives of two sisters: plain and responsible Jemma, and flamboyant, brooding, beautiful Rozzie. Their complex dynamic is tested and strained when Rozzie is suddenly thrust into a career as a Hollywood actress. Self-doubting Jemma toils as a fledgling photographer, drifting in and out of school and often accompanying Rozzie on exotic film shoots. As Jemma struggles with her work and relationships, Rozzie is gradually forced to reveal a secret she has kept from her family for years -- she is losing her eyesight. Finding herself in an unusual position of power, Jemma begins to take charge of her life and Rozzie's with a series of actions that threaten to undo their already fragile bond.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Why does art play such an important role in the novel? In what ways does art define life for Jemma and Rozzie?

2. Jemma says: "Anecdotes about the rich and famous make people cough into their fist or refold a napkin, staring into their lap. For a while I couldn't figure out why..." (p. 22). What is it that makes these people uncomfortable? How does society respond to fame in the novel?

3. How does Rozzie's fame affect the way Jemma sees herself and others? How does fame diminish those who are famous and the people around them? How does it build them up? Matthew's father is a famous writer. He tells Jemma, "It could all be about you and then -- my God -- it's not even about them. It was never about my dad" (p. 115). What does Matthew mean?

4. Discuss the different possible meanings of the novel's title. What is the relationship between art and "seeing"? What are some of the different meanings of "seeing"?

5. In what ways do physical and mental handicaps sometimes give people an unusual perspective on the world and in relationships? Consider Theo, the autistic children, and the ways Rozzie changes after becoming blind.

6. Why is Jemma's story told in first person and Rozzie's told in third person? How does this narrative structure shape our ability to understand each character? Is the book more Jemma's story or Rozzie's?

7. After Rozzie becomes blind she occasionally has brief flashes where she is able to see again, and they always involve Jemma. What do you think is happening during these moments?

8. After Jemma hears about the health scare that her mother kept secret for years she realizes, "...[S]ecrets can be a measure of how much you care. And...telling them is the beginning of caring less" (p. 130). How does this statement exemplify some of the secrets revealed in the novel?

9. Why does putting on Rozzie's clothes give Jemma a feeling of protection when she goes to remove her pictures from the gallery? Is it ironic that the clothes are costumes from movie sets? Who is Jemma trying to be?

10. Why does Rozzie's relationship with Daniel remain so important to her over the years? What does he give her that no one else can?

11. Jemma says of Rozzie, "My whole life has been shaped by the stretch of her light" (p. 231) and that, "in my head, she's always been a celebrity" (p. 248). How do these statements in some ways reflect all sibling relationships? What do they say about the nature of fame?

12. When Jemma tells Theo about the photograph incidents he suggests that maybe she wanted Rozzie to keep being famous. Is he right? Why would Jemma want this?

13. At the end of the book Jemma says, "Maybe [Rozzie's] an actress because I made her be one" (p. 283). What does Jemma mean? How might she be correct?

14. In what ways does Rozzie's blindness help both Jemma and Rozzie gain more control over their lives? How does it change their relationship?

15. How did you feel about the nature of fame and celebrity after reading this book? Did it change your opinions at all?

Enhance Your Book Club:

1. Visit a photography exhibit at a local art gallery or pick up some photography magazines. Are there any large portraits like Jemma's? Pictures of young girls like Margaret's? Do you notice any current trends in photography?

2. Like Jemma, Cammie McGovern has a movie star sister. Check out some of Elizabeth McGovern's movies, including Once Upon a Time in America, She's Having a Baby, and her debut in Ordinary People.

3. Look up the work of some of the photographers Jemma admires, such as Margaret Bourke-White, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Brassai and Mary Ellen Mark.

4. Read other fiction about autistic children, including A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards by Ann Bauer, Daniel Isn't Talking by Marti Leimbach and McGovern's most recent novel, Eye Contact.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 26, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    the bond of sisters

    A book I expected to be dark and full of hate, turned into a book of hope and despair. The tale of Jemma and Rozzie is something everyone can relate to. The tale of of the older sister/younger sister. They both feel it. Yet once Rozzie is hit with becoming completely blind, there lives turn completely around and start to realize the important things around them.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2002

    Amazing, compelling, couldn't put it down.

    The charm, wit, and wisdom of this novel really caught me by surprise and before I knew it, I couldn't stop reading. The sisters are faraway-close to each other in a way that seemed completely real but also intriguing. The issue of blindness never becomes maudlin and the entire work sustains a sense of humor that is both deadpan and laugh-out-loud funny. I missed the world of this book when I finished it. I can't recommend it enough!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 30, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Completly Amaizing-An insightful book

    It is different from any other books that i've read. 100percent recomened it!! Hope ya'll enjoy it as much as i did!!! ;D

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2002

    Beautiful, complex, and impossible to put down

    This wonderful book draws you in from the opening page and doesn't let you go. I was constantly amazed at Ms. McGovern's seemingly effortless ability to weave together the smallest details and observations until they add up to something moving and even astounding. The way these two complex and incredibly well-drawn sisters know each other and at the same time refuse to know each other - and themselves - is both maddening and remarkably true to life. Perhaps the most brilliant turn of all here is the ending - not contrived or sensationalist but deeply, movingly satisfying.

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    Posted May 21, 2010

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    Posted November 26, 2010

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    Posted November 30, 2010

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