Audubon's Watch: A Novel

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Overview

On his deathbed, the great ornithologist John James Audubon is haunted by an incident thirty years ago, when a beautiful woman died suddenly on a Louisiana plantation where he was employed as a tutor. This is the central mystery of Brown’s beguiling third novel.
Having failed as a businessman and portraitist, Audubon in 1821 is just beginning to formulate his grand design to draw all the birds of America. An artist and scientist, aristocrat and wayfaring outcast, he is ...

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Overview

On his deathbed, the great ornithologist John James Audubon is haunted by an incident thirty years ago, when a beautiful woman died suddenly on a Louisiana plantation where he was employed as a tutor. This is the central mystery of Brown’s beguiling third novel.
Having failed as a businessman and portraitist, Audubon in 1821 is just beginning to formulate his grand design to draw all the birds of America. An artist and scientist, aristocrat and wayfaring outcast, he is ambitious, reckless, and naive. Such is his frame of mind when visitors arrive from New Orleans: a scandal-ridden physician and anatomist named Emile Gautreaux and his stunning wife, Myra. When Myra collapses and dies, the distraught Gautreaux believes she has been murdered. He asks the young tutor to sit with him though the long night, keeping watch over her body.
The two men do not meet again for decades, until the now famous Audubon summons Gautreaux to his New York estate. The mystery of Myra’s death has linked them inextricably over time, as each has harbored secrets and deceptions. Richly atmospheric, this mesmerizing tale confirms that “Brown’s compassionate vision of human destiny is one that contains both suffering and the possibility of deliverance” (New York Times).

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"a well-written book that deals with the themes of death, regret, and our place in the world…" Library Journal

"Brown's ambition and achievement in 'Audubon's Watch' lie in the sensual effects of his ornate, overripe language." New York Review of Books

"…Brown provides a delicate rendition of gloomy themes." Publishers Weekly

"Audubon's Watch…focuses on the moral topography of love. . . . Brown creates a Southern Victorian prose voice: grand, self-absorbed, ultimately fearful." The Chicago Tribune

Publishers Weekly
John James Audubon is seen through a dark lens in this fictional take on a particularly rocky period in his tumultuous life. Told from the perspective of the ornithologist in his ailing old age, Brown's brooding psychological novel chronicles in complicated, gothic style an episode that has long haunted its protagonist. At the age of 36, Audubon leaves his wife and children behind in Cincinnati and sets off for New Orleans to begin his quixotic life's work, "to identify, observe, and draw every species of this country's winged inhabitants." He secures a position as a tutor on a Louisiana plantation, but his relatively comfortable life is disturbed by the arrival of visitors. Dr. Emile Gautreaux, an anatomist and voyeur "seeking to explain the body's exquisite grandeur," has been eager to meet Audubon, and in fact wishes to become his patron. This is good news, but Audubon is shaken when he sees Dr. Gautreaux's beautiful wife, Myra, step down from their carriage: he has met her before, in less than respectable circumstances. The very night of the couple's arrival, Myra dies suddenly and mysteriously, and in a prolonged scene, Audubon and Dr. Gautreaux stand watch over her corpse. Gautreaux, whose morally compromised life Brown examines meticulously, is as much the protagonist of this novel as Audubon. His and Audubon's guilty secrets, suspicions and shameful desires are given full airing in a story adorned with bird images and mildly graphic sexual encounters. There are few moments of humor or cheer in this stream-of-consciousness study of two men whose genuine interests in science and nature were ruined by lust and its consequent remorse, but Brown (Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery)provides a delicate rendition of gloomy themes. (Sept. 14) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
Audubon's Watch is by turns elegant and manic, gloomy and ecstatic. Like the work of Edgar Allan Poe, it is filled with images of dark sensuality that are either forbidden or, worse, are attained and then lost. The famed ornithologist is on his deathbed, remembering the long-ago demise of a scandal-plagued anatomist's wife. Chapters alternate between John James Audubon's memories and those of the widower's, and it's hard to tell who suffers more. Dr. Emile Gautreaux can never be the same now that his beloved Myra is dead, and he is tortured by the possibility that she may have been murdered—or that she may have committed suicide. Audubon's pain is based in guilt, because he not only coveted Myra, he possessed her adulterously. The elaborate prose contains some fairly blunt descriptions of sexual congress, which might make younger readers giggle. Adolescents who adore Anne Rice and Buffy the Vampire Slayer might like this book—and that is not meant as a slam to either of those genres, or to Brown. Not everyone is willing to put the work into this book that it deserves, but those who are will find it intriguing and unsettling. 2001, Houghton Mifflin, $24.00. Ages 13 up. Reviewer: Donna Freedman AGES: 13 14 15 16 17 18
Library Journal
This historical novel by the author of Decorations in a Ruined Cemetry attempts to re-create a little-known moment in the life of ornithologist John James Audubon. Around 1821, Audubon realized that he was not going to make a living as a portraitist and conceived his grand plan to observe and draw all of the birds in North America. In this story, he meets the fictional physician Emile Gautreaux and his wife, Myra, at a plantation where he teaches the owner's daughter music and painting. When the Gautreauxs arrive by carriage, Myra collapses and dies. Emile asks Audubon to sit with the dead body overnight to help keep away the evil spirits. Thirty years later, on his deathbed, Audubon summons Gautreauxwhom he has not seen since that nightto unburden his soul. Both men bear secrets about Myra and her mysterious death and thus have been subconsciously linked ever since that time. Part mystery and part historical novel, this tale is told by both men in alternating chapters. While it is a well-written book that deals with the themes of death, regret, and our place in the world, the characters are not fully engaging. Recommended for larger collections with well-developed historical fiction sections.Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Brown (The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur, 1996, etc.) takes Audubon to New Orleans in 1821, where a dark experience marks him for 30 years-though it may do less to a reader. At 36, Audubon is married with two sons-but as yet no artistic success. Off he goes downriver (from his then-home in Ohio) to make his fortune as a bird-artist-and is approached by a gorgeous, unnamed woman who asks if he'll draw her-in the buff. All right, except that when this liberated lady comes over-in the buff-to have a look behind the easel, Audubon can help himself no longer and falls upon her, though matters aren't completed before she hastens away into the night. Who could she have been? Just imagine Audubon's discomfiture when later, at the luxe sugar-cane plantation where he tutors the planter's teenaged daughter (a minx), family friend Dr. Emile Gautreaux arrives for a visit with his wife Myra, who-is the naked woman! Worse, Myra then very suddenly dies, and the addled Audubon is coerced into staying up all night with Gautreaux, sitting by the body. The story is recollected-by Audubon and Gautreaux in turns-years later, when the dying Audubon calls Gautreaux to his bedside. As he travels toward Audubon, Gautreaux thinks about the past, and Audubon does the same in his bed ("speaking" to his two daughters, both dead since infancy). Much is parallel between the two men, both being scientist-artists in search of nature's "truth" (a scholar of anatomy, Gautraux was fiercely maligned for using cadavers). If there's doubt that they'll find the "truth" of Myra's death (was she murdered?), there's none at all that Brown's symbols are heavy (a hurricane, Audubon's birds, Gautraux's wife) and hislanguage archaically elevated ("Perhaps you know already the perplexing intoxication of desire, its fearful might"). Ambitious, effortful, acutely researched-but lithe it isn't, with portent equal to content
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780395786079
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 8/1/2001
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

John Gregory Brown lives in Virginia and teaches creative writing at Sweet Briar College. He is the author of The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton LaFleur and Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, which received a Steinbeck Award and the Lillian Smith Award. Audubon’s Watch was selected as the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

“Beauty carries death in its arms,” Emile Gautreaux, physician of New Orleans, once declared to a young apprentice while ceremoniously brandishing the scalpel with which he was about to commence the apprentice’s first lesson in anatomy. This notion must have occurred at least once to the ornithologist and artist John James Audubon as he raised his rifle toward the sky and paused before taking aim on a bird whose exquisite splendor he would recreate on the page. It was indeed beauty and death that brought these two men together. On July 31, 1821, at the estate of James and Lucretia Pirrie in St. Francisville, Louisiana, where Audubon was employed as a tutor to the Pirries’ charming, coquettish daughter and to which Gautreaux had traveled in order to meet the man whose drawings he so admired, the two men spent the night not engaged in pleasant conversation, as Gautreaux had hoped, but keeping watch over the body of Gautreaux’s wife.

Myra Richardson’s striking beauty and curiously frank manner had enchanted and tormented a variety of men before her marriage to Emile Gautreaux. And throughout his life Audubon made gifts of his drawings to women who excited his interest, with coy and affectionate tributes hastily scrawled in charcoal pencil on the back. But the manner of Myra Gautreaux’s death—its mystery and vulgarity, its suggestion of exaltation, its intimation of despair—and the troubling beauty of even her lifeless body seemed to assure that both men would never free themselves from their memory of this evening. Thirty years later, confined to his bed and amid his mind’s ceaseless wanderings, Audubon turned again to his meeting with Emile Gautreaux. He spoke not to his sons, John Woodhouse and Victor, nor to his wife, Lucy, nor to his dear friend, John Bachman, but to his two daughters, grown in his mind’s eye to their full grace and beauty. Just as Audubon finally spoke, so did Emile Gautreaux. His carriage made its way from New Orleans to New York, an arduous journey lasting nearly a month. But what was a month? It was nothing. For thirty years passion and grief had burrowed so deep that they had invaded every chalky bone to the marrow. They had feasted with insatiable appetite on the soul. They had become both sustainer and destroyer, mother and infant, victor and victim, carrion and cathedral, the earth’s lime and loam. Here was the very embrace of the heavens.

Copyright © 2001 by John Gregory Brown. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2001

    A fascinating historical novel

    I loved Brown's first two novels, 'Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery' and 'The Wrecked Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur', but I think this new one is his best. As with the others, this is a terribly sad and rather disturbing story but the writing is glorious and the observations about John James Audubon completely fascinating. Brown takes us into the minds of Audubon and the anatomist Emile Gautreaux not just as artist and scientist but as men. He examines them the way they examine their subjects. The novel's real subject seems to be grief and passion and the way both can take hold of us. I think John Gregory Brown's books deserve to get much more attention than they do.

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