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Overview

Clara Brodeur has spent her entire adult life pulling herself away from her famous mother, the renowned and controversial photographer Ruth Dunne, whose towering reputation rests on the unsettling nude portraits she took of her young daughter.

At age eighteen, sick of her notoriety as “the girl in the pictures,” Clara fled New York City, settling and making her own family in small-town Maine. But years later, when Ruth reaches out from her ...
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Overview

Clara Brodeur has spent her entire adult life pulling herself away from her famous mother, the renowned and controversial photographer Ruth Dunne, whose towering reputation rests on the unsettling nude portraits she took of her young daughter.

At age eighteen, sick of her notoriety as “the girl in the pictures,” Clara fled New York City, settling and making her own family in small-town Maine. But years later, when Ruth reaches out from her deathbed, Clara suddenly finds herself drawn back to the past she thought she had escaped. From the beloved author of Family History and Slow Motion, a spellbinding novel that asks: How do we forgive those who failed to protect us?


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Erica Wagner
You could say…that the novel's central proposition is trite: how will Clara face the demons of her past? Yet all universal dilemmas—and this is certainly one—could be dismissed as trite. The truth is they face us all, and it is the novelist's job to breathe life into them one way or another, and this is something Shapiro does very well indeed. The strength of this novel is its particularity, its specificity, whether Shapiro is raking over the changes wrought by the years to the Upper West Side or describing Clara's sense of dislocation as she attempts to blend in with the other moms on the Maine island…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Clara, the protagonist of Shapiro's uneven fifth novel (after Family History), is the youngest daughter and muse of Ruth Dunne, a famous Manhattan photographer who made her name shooting Sally Mann–style (read: nude and provocative) photos of a young Clara. Unable to bear the humiliation of being "the girl in those pictures," Clara runs away from home at 18. Fourteen years later and still estranged from her mother, Clara's living in Maine with her husband and daughter when her older sister calls and tells her Ruth is in failing health. Clara travels back to Manhattan, where she comes to terms with her family and herself. Though Clara's frequent bemoaning of her emotional scars tries the reader's patience, Shapiro's sharp depictions of love and shame go a long way toward putting the self-pity into relief. It's unfortunate that Ruth fails to comes across as anything more than a narcissistic artist, but the novel offers some fine insights into marriage, the making of art and the often difficult mother-daughter dynamic. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
It has been 14 years since Clara last saw or spoke to her mother, the renowned photographer Ruth Dunne, when her sister calls to say that Ruth is dying of lung cancer. Returning home to New York, Clara is forced to revisit her feelings about Ruth's work, particularly the subversive, invasive photographs of Clara from age three to 14, while dealing with Ruth's inevitable decline toward death. The story unfolds beautifully, drawing the reader into the family drama, while Shapiro (Family History) creates a sense of uneasy secrecy about Ruth and Clara's relationship by revealing only a few details at a time. Oprah's Book Club readers or fans of Jodi Picoult will enjoy this psychologically gripping book, and there will be a reading group guide available. Recommended for most libraries.
—Amy Ford
Kirkus Reviews
Clara struggles to come to terms with her dying mother, famous for exploitative photos taken of Clara as a child. Were Ruth Dunne's exquisite nude photos of her younger daughter-who sensed the abuse but could never articulate it-permissible, as art, or were they an unforgivable act of exploitation? Shapiro (Family History, 2003, etc.) seems to draw on the controversy surrounding real-life photographers like Sally Mann, but she populates this interesting scenario with bluntly drawn characters. Clara Dunne is reduced to panic at any reminder of her mother's photo shoots and her own unwelcome fame as the child star of the Clara Series. Fourteen years before the story opens, she fled New York and started a new life in Maine, as the wife of jeweler Jonathan and mother of Samantha. When Clara's sister Robin phones with the news that Ruth is ill, Clara chooses to go back and help, but cannot bring herself to explain to Sam that she has a grandmother. Ruth has terminal cancer but hopes, before time runs out, to put together a book containing all the pictures that made her name. Clara is appalled all over again by this news. Back in Maine, however, Jonathan's anger and Sam's withdrawal force her to come clean with her own daughter. Now the family can return to New York, for a sequence of healing scenes. Sam sees some of the photos at MoMA and pronounces them cool. Robin, who has spent a lifetime feeling alone, grows closer to Clara. Ruth, on her deathbed and ruthless no more, asks forgiveness. And Clara celebrates the publication of the book. Victimhood presented, as the title suggests, in stark terms, with only occasional flashes of insight.
From the Publisher
"Gavin's compelling voice seduces listeners into believing this is her own story. Her...voice grips listeners and adds soul to Shapiro's story of reconciliation." —-AudioFile
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307267252
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/3/2007
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 311,389
  • File size: 301 KB

Meet the Author

Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro is the author of four acclaimed novels, Family History, Playing with Fire, Fugitive Blue, and Picturing the Wreck, and the best-selling memoir Slow Motion. She teaches in the graduate writing program at The New School, and has written for TheNew York Times, Granta, Elle, and Ploughshares, among other magazines. She lives with her husband and son in Litchfield County, Connecticut.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Biography

Dani Shapiro is the author of four acclaimed novels, Playing with Fire, Fugitive Blue, and Picturing the Wreck, and Family History, and the bestselling memoir Slow Motion. She teaches in the graduate writing program at The New School, and has written for The New Yorker, Granta, Elle, and Ploughshares, among other magazines. She lives with her husband and son in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

Author biography courtesy of Random House.

Good To Know

In out interview, Shapiro shared some interesting anecdotes about her life with us:

"One of the stranger things about me is that I was raised as an Orthodox Jew. I went to a yeshiva until I was thirteen years old, and spoke fluent Hebrew. I no longer can speak Hebrew, though I suppose it would come back if I immersed myself in it."

"I used to act in television commercials when I was a kid and a young adult."

"I've never had a ‘real job'. Well, that's not entirely true. I spent a week as an executive assistant at an advertising agency after I graduated from college -- it's the thing that propelled me back into graduate school, to get my M.F.A. And also, I sold cubic zirconia (fake diamonds) over the phone when I was in high school. Phone sales. Talk about rejection!"

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    1. Hometown:
      Bethlehem, Connecticut
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 10, 1962
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1987, M.F.A., 1989

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

It has been years since anyone has asked Clara if she’s Ruth Dunne’s daughter—you know, the girl in those pictures. But it has also been years—fourteen, precisely—since Clara has set foot in New York. The Upper West Side is a foreign country. The butcher, the shoe repair guy, even the Korean grocer have been replaced by multilevel gyms with juice bars, restaurants with one-syllable French names. Aix, Ouest. The deli where Clara and Robin used to stop on Saturday mornings—that deli is now some sort of boutique. The mannequin in the window is wearing blue jeans and a top no bigger than a cocktail napkin.

This is not the neighborhood of her childhood, though she can still see bits and pieces if she looks hard enough. There’s the door to what was once Shakespeare & Co. She spent hours in that bookstore, hiding in the philosophy section, until one summer they gave her a job as a cashier. She lasted three days. Every other person, whether they were buying Wittgenstein or Updike, seemed to stare at her, as if trying to figure out why she looked familiar. So she quit.

Shakespeare & Co. is now an Essentials Plus. The window displays shampoos, conditioners, a dozen varieties of magnifying mirrors. A small child bundled up in winter gear is riding a mechanical dinosaur next to the entrance, slowly moving up and down to a tinny version of the Flintstones theme song.

Since the taxi dropped her off at the corner of Broadway and 79th Street, she has counted five wireless cellular stores, three manicure parlors, four real estate brokers. So this is now the Upper West Side: a place where people in cute outfits, their bellies full of steak-frites, talk on brand-new cell phones while getting their nails done on their way to look at new apartments.

It is as if a brightly colored transparency has been placed over the neighborhood of Clara’s memory, which had been the color of a sparrow: tan, brown, gray as smudged newsprint. Now, everything seems large and neon. Even the little old Jewish men who used to sit on the benches in the center islands in the middle of Broadway, traffic whizzing around them in both directions—even they seem to be a thing of the past.

She crosses Broadway quickly, the DON'T WALK sign already flashing. Outside the old Shakespeare & Co., a man has set up a tray table piled with books. A large cardboard sign announces PHILIP ROTH—SIGNED COPIES!!! Above the sign, a poster-sized photograph of Roth himself peers disapprovingly over the shoppers, the mothers pushing strollers, the teenagers checking their reflections in the windows of Essentials Plus.

She has brought nothing with her. No change of clothes, no clean underwear, not even a toothbrush. She’s not staying, no way in hell. That’s what she told herself the whole flight down from Bangor. Ridiculous, of course. She’s going to have to stay at least overnight. Broadway is already cast in a wintry shadow, the sun low in the sky, setting across the Hudson River. Her body—the same body that spent her whole childhood in this place—knows the time by the way the light falls over the avenue. She doesn’t need to look at her watch. It’s four o’clock. That much—the way the sun rises and sets—has not changed.

She’s been circling for an hour. Killing time. Down Columbus, across brownstone-lined side streets, over to West End Avenue with its stately gray buildings, heavy brass doors, uniformed doormen just inside.

A man in an overcoat hurries by her. He glances at her as he passes, holding her gaze for a moment longer than necessary. Why does he bother? She looks like a hundred other women on the Upper West Side: pale, dark-haired, lanky. A thirtyish blur. She could be pretty if she tried, but she has long since stopped trying. Clara stares back at the man. Stop looking at me. This, too, she has forgotten about the city: the brazen way that people size each other up, constantly weighing, judging, comparing. So very different from the Yankee containment of Maine, where everybody just minds their own business.


The phone call came at about eleven o’clock, a few nights ago. No one ever called that late; it was as if the ring itself had a slightly shriller tone to it. (Of course, this could be what her memory is supplying to the moment now—now that she is here.) Everybody was asleep. Jonathan, Sam, Zorba, the puppy, in his crate downstairs in the kitchen.

Jonathan groped for the phone.

“Hello?”

A long pause—too long—and then he reached over and turned on the bedside lamp. It was freezing in their bedroom, the bed piled with four blankets. One of the windowsills was rotting, but to fix it meant ripping the whole thing out, which meant real construction, which cost money, which they didn’t have.

Jonathan handed her the phone.

“Who is it?” she mouthed, hand over the receiver.

He shook his head.

“Hello?” She cleared her throat, hoarse from sleep. “Hello?”

“Clara?”

With a single word—her own name—her head tightened. Robin almost never called her, and certainly not at this hour. They talked exactly once a year, on the anniversary of their father’s death. Clara sank deeper beneath the pile of blankets, the way an animal might try to camouflage itself, sensing danger. Her mind raced through the possibilities. Something had happened, something terrible. Robin would not be calling with good news. And there was only one person, really, whom they shared.

“What’s wrong?” Clara’s voice was a squeak. A pathetic little mouse.

“I’m going to tell you something—and I want you to promise me you won’t hang up.”

Clara was silent. The mirror over the dresser facing the bed was hanging askew, and she could see herself and Jonathan, their rumpled late-night selves. Through the receiver, on Robin’s end, she heard office sounds. The muted ring of corporate telephones, even at this hour.

“Don’t hang up. Promise?”

How like Robin to want to seal the deal, to control the situation, before Clara even knows what the situation is.

“Okay.”

“Say ‘promise.’ ”

Clara squeezed her hands into fists.

“Christ! I promise.”

“Ruth is . . . she’s sick. She’s—oh, shit, Clara. It’s bad. She’s very sick.”

“What do you mean?” Clara responded. The words didn’t make sense. She was stupid with shock.

“Listen. I’m just calling to say that you need to come home,” Robin said.

There it was. Fourteen years—and there it was. Home. She was home, goddammit.

“I’ve made myself insane, going around and around in circles.” Robin paused. “My therapist finally said it wasn’t up to me—that you had a right to know.”

“How long has this been going on?” Clara managed to ask.

“Awhile,” Robin said. She sounded tired. Three kids, partner in a midtown law firm; of course she was tired. Clara couldn’t imagine her sister’s life.

Clara climbed out of bed and walked over to the window. She was suddenly suffocatingly hot in the freezing room. The lights from the harbor beckoned in the distance.

“Look, the truth is—I can’t deal with this by myself,” Robin said. Never, in Clara’s memory, had Robin ever admitted such a thing. She was the queen of competence.

“I have to think about it,” Clara said. Her sister was silent on the other end of the phone. Clara tried to picture her, but the image wasn’t clear: round brown eyes, a tense mouth. “Okay, Robin? This is— I never thought I would ever even consider—”

“I know,” said Robin. “But please.”

After she hung up the phone, Clara climbed back into bed and twined her legs around Jonathan’s, her hands on his belly. She closed her eyes tight and burrowed her face into the crease of his neck. He was asking her something—What are you going to do?—but his voice sounded muffled, as if suddenly there were something, something thick and cottony, separating her from her real life. She breathed Jonathan in, fighting the avalanche of thoughts.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What does the book's title suggest about life's absolutes? Is it possible for moral absolutes to exist—and to survive—in a family?

2. The novel's epigraph features Walker Evans's imperative to “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” Does Ruth's work with Clara constitute an attempt to educate the eye? There is a vivid contrast between the immediacy of Evans's photos of Depression-era sharecroppers and the artifice of Ruth's carefully staged compositions. What do you make of Shapiro's use of the quote from Evans? Does Ruth die “knowing something”? If so, what is it?

3. When Sammy innocently suggests that they throw away all of Ruth's old magazines, Clara experiences a moment of “near-euphoric clarity” [p. 203]. Why? What does the act of purging “her mother's apartment of all that is unnecessary . . . every single unessential thing” represent to Clara [p. 203]?

4. Ruth's first words to Clara, after fourteen years of silence, are “Wait a minute” [p. 14]. What's the significance of this? In what ways has Ruth kept Clara waiting, or in a state of suspended animation, over the years?

5. Photographer Sally Mann's photographs of her own children, often pictured nude and in intimate settings, have been vilified as pornographic by some critics. Is Ruth meant to evoke Mann? How does the narrator describe Ruth's photographs? Do they read as beautiful? Lurid? Upsetting? To what extent is the narration sympathetic with Clara? How would the novel be different if the story were told in first person with Clara as the narrator? With Ruth as the narrator?

6. On her final circuit of the art galleries in Chelsea, Ruth suffers the devastating embarrassment of anonymity. How does her humiliation affect Clara?

7. Robin believes that she was neglected while Clara received all of Ruth's attention. How has she channeled this neglect in her adult life? Does she undergo a transformation in the course of the novel?

8. Rather than relish the memory of “the year her mother left her alone,” Clara recalls the year as “blank, like a skipped page in a notebook. A mistake” [p. 164]. In fact, Clara goes so far as to study the critics' reactions to this gap in Ruth's career: “Whole academic papers have been published on the subject. Clara's personal favorite, 'The Interrupted Gaze,' . . . is a psychoanalytic meditation on Ruth's work” [p. 164]. Why does Clara insist on immersing herself in what is ostensibly her least favorite topic, to the extent of reading academic papers? Does her obsessive behavior affect your ability to empathize with her? Is it meant to?

9. Kubovy is certain that Nathan “would be no more than a footnote in the ultimate biography of Ruth Dunne” [p. 89]. Is he right? Is Nathan merely a footnote in the novel? Why is there so little information about his death and its impact on the three women in the family?

10. The act of creating a family of her own gives Clara the opportunity to examine every nuance of her mother's behavior from a safe distance. By comparing Ruth's gaze to Jonathan's, Clara realizes that “Ruth's attention was predatory, stalking. . . Laying claim to her. . . . Drowning out all that is good” [p. 123]. Yet, as a mother, Clara also “knows the feeling. . . . The desire to devour, the almost physical need to envelop and keep safe” [p. 133]. How do these opposing insights serve Clara when she comes face-to-face with Ruth at last?

11. Ruth's claim that, “it's my work. It's not about you-it was never about you” [p. 79] astonishes Clara and sets up a staggering dividing line between the two women early in their reunion. Is this remark meant to emphasize Ruth's extreme self-absorption, or Clara's? Can this moment be considered the climax of the novel?

12. When an affronted Peony challenges Clara and Robin about their apparent disregard for Ruth's dignity, she asks, “How can you not understand how lucky you are?” [p. 207]. Why does the section end there, without exposing the two sisters' reactions to this question? What would their answers have been?

13. During Ruth's final hours, she begs Sam for forgiveness, mistaking the child for Clara. Clara fails to rescue her frightened daughter from this awkward scenario because “she can't help it. She wants to hear more” [p. 220]. What does this scene suggest about Clara's weaknesses? Why doesn't she prompt Sam to agree to forgive the dying woman? Is Clara's reticence at this crucial moment justifiable?

14. Clara's obsession with the photographs of herself is linked to her concept of identity. As a child, they represent togetherness with her mother: “Sometimes Clara imagines that they are together in that black-and-white world, that the place inside the pictures is the real one and this—all this is just a rehearsal” [p. 52]. As an adult, she is able to recognize a photo of herself from the tiniest sliver of image “because those images have always been more vivid and immediate to Clara than anything she might actually be seeing” [p. 76]. What does this imply about Clara's sense of self? What shifts for Clara over the course of the novel, providing her with the emotional wherewithal to host the book party? What is the significance of her catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror in the book's final paragraph?

15. Ruth's enigmatic dedication in the book Clara reads: “To Clara and Robin, Without whom.” What are some possible meanings of this phrase, beyond the obvious “without whom none of it would have been possible” [p. 255]?

16. Clara's emotional reactions to Ruth's illness ricochet from fear, “Please don't be dead” [p. 137], to dispassion, “Just die. . . . Just die already” [p. 177], to guilt, “I'm killing her . . . it's my fault she's dying” [p. 228]. What do these phrases reveal about the complexities of death in a dysfunctional family? What is Clara's emotional state at the moment of Ruth's actual death?

17. As Clara peruses a stack of photographs of herself at her mother's bedside, she is “overtaken by a violent, intense desire to rip the pictures in two” and “sits on her hands . . . to stop herself from doing something she can never take back” [p. 77]. How would the novel be different if Clara had acted on this impulse? Would she be a more or less likable character? Are the photographs hers to destroy?

18. Clara's stunned reaction to being left in control of Ruth's body of work is the liberating, optimistic conclusion “She loved me” [p. 252]. Do you agree that this is Ruth's posthumous message to her daughter, or might there be a more psychologically complex message at the root of her decision?

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 10 of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2007

    Wow -- What a book

    From the very first sentence, this story grabbed me and held me till the end. I simply couldn't put it down and finished it in a day! Mother/daughter relationships, perhaps the most complex of all inter-personal interactions, always make for engaging if not emotionally charged storytelling and this tale is no different. Life, death, love, hate, guilt and remorse -- the very core of human emotional interaction are the underlying and core elements of this well-written book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    An interesting family drama

    Infamous photographer Ruth Dunne is dying from cancer yet hopes to put together one last book as a testimony of her work. Her youngest daughter Clara, the object of much of the sensational pictures, fled Manhattan and her mom for the serene quiet of Maine where she has lived for fourteen years in seclusion with her spouse Jonathan and their daughter Samantha, who is unaware that her maternal grandmother is alive or that her mom was the ¿star¿. When Clara¿s sister Robin informs her that mom is dying, she would like to reconcile with Ruth before dies, but has so much anger over those pictures of her as a naked child that Ruth insists were art, but Clara feels they were exploitation and abuse.-------------- Forced to tell the truth to Sam, the family travels to New York to see Ruth. At the MoMA, Sam sees some of her grandmother¿s work and believes they are fine. Robin who has always felt left out and alone and Clara bond as adult sisters something they could not do as children. Meanwhile as Ruth nears death she begs Clara to forgive her as she never intended to harm her with her art. While her family wants a reconciliation, Clara has doubts as exploitation remains in the forefront of her mind.----------------------- This is an interesting family drama as each of the key players come across as unique individuals with issues and concerns. The story line focuses mostly on the dysfunctional relationship between Ruth and Clara, but also provides some insight to the lack of rapport between sisters, spouses, and mother and daughter. Readers will know how everyone feels as no one holds back their emotions. Although the climax seems too forgiving, fans will enjoy this fine character driven tale.------------------- Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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