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The Great Man

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Overview

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Oscar Feldman, the renowned figurative painter, has passed away. As his obituary notes, Oscar is survived by his wife, Abigail, their son, Ethan, and his sister, the well-known abstract painter Maxine Feldman. What the obituary does not note, however, is that Oscar is also survived by his longtime mistress, Teddy St. Cloud, and their daughters.

As two biographers interview the women in an attempt to ...

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Overview

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Oscar Feldman, the renowned figurative painter, has passed away. As his obituary notes, Oscar is survived by his wife, Abigail, their son, Ethan, and his sister, the well-known abstract painter Maxine Feldman. What the obituary does not note, however, is that Oscar is also survived by his longtime mistress, Teddy St. Cloud, and their daughters.

As two biographers interview the women in an attempt to set the record straight, the open secret of his affair reaches a boiling point and a devastating skeleton threatens to come to light. From the acclaimed author of The Epicure's Lament, a scintillating novel of secrets, love, and legacy in the New York art world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Great Man is as unexpectedly generous as it is entertaining. . . . Wise and expansive. . . . Christensen is a witty observer of the art universe.” —The New York Times “Christensen's writing is clear-eyed, muscular, bitingly funny, and supremely caustic about the niceties of social relations, contemporary American culture, and sexual politics.” —O, The Oprah Magazine “These characters are wonderfully developed and break the stereotype of the aging female protagonist. Christensen . . . boldly has raised the bar.” —USA Today "Nimble, witty and discerning, Kate Christensen is single-handedly reinvigorating the comedy of manners with her smart and disemboweling novels of misanthropes, cultural and aesthetic divides, private angst, social ambition and appetites run amok." —Chicago Tribune
Janet Maslin
Though the women in Oscar's life are anything but amicable at the start of The Great Man, the book follows them through "a nice little volley of overdue spats and tantrums," as Teddy puts it. And Ms. Christensen does a funny, astute job of pulling the wool from their eyes. In a lesser novel these plot developments could easily occur in mechanical, sitcom fashion, but The Great Man is as unexpectedly generous as it is entertaining. Instead of milking the old feuds, it allows them to dissipate. Its real emphasis is not on Oscar's legacy but on the ways in which these women escape his shadow…Among Ms. Christensen's works The Great Man is a gentler book than The Epicure's Lament. (Her others are Jeremy Thrane and In the Drink.) It's also a wise and expansive one, and it allows its characters to flourish in unexpectedly rewarding ways.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

This penetratingly observed novel is less about the great man of its title than the women Oscar Feldman, fictional 20th-century New York figurative painter (and an infamous seducer of models as well as a neglectful father), leaned on and left behind: Abigail, his wife of more than four decades; Teddy, his mistress of nearly as many years; and Maxine, his sister, an abstract artist who has achieved her own lesser measure of fame. Five years after Feldman's death, as the women begin sketching their versions of him for a pair of admiring young biographers working on very different accounts of his life, long-buried resentments corrode their protectiveness, setting the stage for secrets to be spilled and bonds to be tested. Christensen (The Epicure's Lament) tells the story with striking compassion and grace, and her characters are fully alive and frankly sexual creatures. Distraction intrudes when real-world details are wrong (the A-train, for instance, doesn't run through the Bronx), and the novel's bookends-an obituary and a book review, both ostensibly from the New York Times-are less than convincing as artifacts. In all, however, this is an eloquent story posing questions to which there are no simple answers: what is love? what is family? what is art? (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

This novel might more accurately be titled "The Women Who Supported the Good Painter," since it's more about the three women in Oscar Feldman's life than it is about the fictional artist himself. There's his wife, Abigail, more friend than lover, the dedicated and lonely mother of his profoundly autistic son. Teddy was his soul mate, his long-term mistress, and mother of his twin daughters. His sister Maxine is also a painter, less well known but perhaps more talented. All have a deep affection for Oscar, complicated by their understanding of how he needed and devoured women in both his art-figurative paintings of the female nude-and his life. Now, with two researchers penning posthumous biographies about the great man, the women remember who they were with Oscar and discover who they have become. Christensen (The Epicure's Lament) excels at imagining the inner thoughts of this mixed trio of septuagenarians, especially regarding their sexuality. Not as strong are the poorly developed biographers, who, despite being African American and Caucasian, are equally bland and undistinguishable. A solid title; for most fiction collections.
—Christine Perkins

Kirkus Reviews
After a famous painter's death, the septuagenarian women who loved and survived him reexamine their lives, in a novel as much about aging as art. Oscar Feldman was a typical larger-than-life, mid-20th-century New York artist with a huge appetite for life's sensual delights and an equally huge ego. Although he worked when abstracts ruled, he painted only realistic nudes, always women. Now two biographers, angst-ridden new father Henry Burke and gay black intellectual Ralph Washington, have competing contracts to write his biography. Each man seeks out interviews with Oscar's wealthy, devoutly Jewish wife Abigail, his longtime (but not only) mistress Teddy and his sister Maxine, well-known in her own right as an abstract painter. On the Upper West Side, Abigail accepted Oscar's philandering and narcissism without complaint and cared for their severely autistic son Ethan without his help. She also carried on a passionate three-year affair with Ethan's doctor and now is not above bribing Ralph to put a favorable gloss on Oscar's worst peccadilloes. In Brooklyn, earthy, avowedly Bohemian Teddy bore Oscar twin daughters and provided passionate devotion with no strings attached. She prefers neurotic Henry as a biographer, sensing his sexual energy. Maxine, still painting in Soho at 79, resents the attention paid to her brother. Nevertheless, the flimsy plot concerns her desire to protect his reputation. Her failed effort to hide the secret behind one of his most respected paintings involves Maxine's female former lover and Teddy's best friend, who also secretly loved Oscar. As they muse on Oscar's life and art, the women feed the biographers and themselves wonderful meals, bicker and find commonground where none previously existed. Friendship and sexual love remain of vibrant importance for these tough old birds, unforgettable and far more engaging characters than predictable Oscar. A joyful art-world romp from Christensen (The Epicure's Lament, 2004, etc.) that allows aging women to come across as sexy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307277343
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/13/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 353,421
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Kate Christensen is also the author of the novels In the Drink, Jeremy Thrane, and The Epicure's Lament. Her essays and articles have appeared in various publications including Salon, Mademoiselle, The Hartford Courant, Elle, and the best-selling anthology The Bitch in the House. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband.
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Read an Excerpt

One

“It’s amazing how well you can live on very little money,” said Teddy St. Cloud to Henry Burke over her shoulder as she strode into the kitchen of her Brooklyn row house. She hoped he was noticing that her hips and waist were still girlishly slender, her step youthful, and that he’d describe her accurately instead of saying she was “gaunt but chipper,” like that sour–faced squaw with the crooked teeth from The New Yorker who’d written the profile of Oscar a few years ago. “I hope you’re a Reform Jew,” she added. “I got prosciutto.”

“I'm not Jewish,” he said after a second of displacement. They stood somewhat awkwardly together in the kitchen, not sure suddenly where to go now that their short walk down the hall had disgorged them into their destination. “But people often think—”

“Burke,” she said. “That’s not the Ellis Islandization of Berkowitz?”

“No,” said Henry. “It’s English.”

She leaned against the counter, her eyes fixed on some middle distance in her mind. She suspected that she looked much older in person than Henry had expected, but then, of course, she was seventy–four, and the person he’d no doubt been expecting, unconsciously, to meet was the young woman Oscar had fallen in love with. But she was proud of the fact that as old as she was, she still resembled her younger self. Her oval, narrow face had aged markedly, with shallow grooves running along both sides of her nose, slight hoods over her eyes, a subtle lengthening of the earlobes, a thinning of the lips, a network of extremely fine wrinkles around her eyes. But she held her small, well–shaped head very high, with the self–aware edge of mischief and manipulation Oscar had loved, eyes glittering foxily, as if she were about to snap out of her feigned concentration and laugh at her observer for being fooled into thinking she hadn’t been watching him all along. This air of expressive, confident intelligence, Oscar had told her, was one of the sexiest qualities about her, the electric flame that ran almost visibly soft and licking over her skin, hinting at interesting flare–ups. Then he had added that having incredible boobs didn’t hurt.

“Please sit down,” said Teddy; she intended it as a command. She wasn’t impressed by Henry. She guessed that he was forty or thereabouts. He looked like a lightweight, the kind of young man you saw everywhere these days, gutless and bland. He wore soft cotton clothing, a little rumpled from the heat and long drive in the car—she would have bet it was a Volvo. She could smell domesticity on him, the technologically up–to–date apartment on the Upper West Side, the ambitious, hard–edged wife—women were the hard ones at that age. Men turned sheepish and eager to please after about forty. Oscar had been the same way; he’d turned into a bit of a hangdog at around forty and hadn’t fully regained his chutzpah until he’d hit fifty or so, but even then, she had never lost interest in him, and she was still interested in him now, even though he was gone.

Henry chose a chair facing her and sat at the table.

“Look at this melon,” she said. “I asked my grocer to give it to me half price by letting him think it was a little soft. Well, it is, but just in one small spot.”

She began slicing the cantaloupe in half on a cutting board, holding the knife in her small square hand. Her kitchen was a long, narrow galley–shaped room with glass-fronted cupboards and an old–fashioned stove and refrigerator, a deep cast–iron sink. The room, like the rest of the house, felt as if she were only temporarily inhabiting it. It had no particular odor. Most old houses were clogged with the olfactory remnants of years of living, the memories of long–ago meals, hidden mold, the strong scent of people. This wasn’t the house she had lived in when she and Oscar were together, but the one she’d bought after his death five years ago, after selling the other one. This one had lost its history when the family who’d owned it for decades had moved out with all their stuff and Teddy had moved in with hers. Somehow, during the transfer, everything had discharged its freight of sediment, the walls of the house, her furniture and belongings, and now it all just smelled clean and impersonal. None of Oscar’s paintings hung on these walls: Oscar had never given her one.

“So,” she said abruptly from the sideboard. “What can I tell you about the great man?”

“Well,” said Henry, caught slightly off guard. “I was thinking we would start at the beginning. For now, just talk about him. We’ll get down to the nitty–gritty of dates and times later. Maybe start with how you met him, how the two of you fell in love—”

“Wine?” she said with a glint of aggression. She reached into the refrigerator, the corkscrew already in her other hand. “It’s a Sancerre, but not as expensive as it tastes, by far.” She wrested the cork from its hole with a faintly savage twist of her wrist. She had been expecting someone Jewish like Oscar, someone ballsy, someone fun to banter and flirt with, not this twerp in rumpled khakis.

“Sure,” he said with a puzzled sidelong look up at her.

“Henry,” she said as she set his glass down with a snap in front of him, “let’s establish one thing right now. This discussion is nonnegotiable. If you won’t listen to what I have to say, you can drink your wine and eat a little melon and then you get up and leave. You’ve clearly arrived with some preconceived notions, and if you can’t shake them loose out of your head like a lot of…moths, then I have nothing to say to you.”

Henry blinked. “I have no preconceived notions,” he said. “I’m here to listen.”

“I want to see a flock of moths rising from your head,” she said. “I’m going to roll the melon with prosciutto now, and when I next turn around, I want to see white fluttery little things rising from your hair and flying out the window.”

She flung open the casement window over the sink and the room was immediately crowded with the sounds of tree leaves, birdsong, and the shouts of kids in a nearby backyard. Her back was turned to him. She could feel her body quivering like an arrow aimed at someone’s heart as she worked.

“You’re right about this wine,” he said. “It’s delicious.”

“No man should ever use the word delicious,” she said.

“Teddy,” he said clearly.

She turned slowly to stare at him. Had he actually just called her by her nickname? They looked at each other blank–faced for an instant, and she imagined that he was also wondering this same thing.

“Claire,” they both corrected at once.

“Yes?” she said.

“Talk to me about Oscar,” he said. He took another taste of wine.

“The great man,” said Teddy with a private inner smile, “was the biggest human baby in all of history. That’s no secret: We all know how his women propped him up, me and his wife, Abigail, and sister, Maxine, and our daughters, not to mention every woman he met at an opening or on a train. He couldn’t live without a woman around to look at and probe, by which I mean fuck but also investigate thoroughly.”

Henry picked up his pen and glanced at his notebook but didn’t write anything down.

“He couldn't live without a woman around,” she repeated. She knew he wanted dates, knew his monomaniacal, orderly biographer’s mind was lying in wait, biding its time, until it could spring forth like an anteater’s tongue and cleanly extract the facts of her history with Oscar like a swath of ants from an anthill. She felt herself resist this with everything she had. No fact, no date—“Oscar Feldman first met Claire St. Cloud on October 7, 1958,” for example—could convey anything of what had really gone on between them. “He saw women as the most powerful beings on earth. You can see it in his portrait of our daughter Ruby as a baby, the girl child with the knowing eyes of a brutal queen. He could catch that complex expression in a baby girl without undercutting her cuteness, without forgetting she was just a baby. But he wasn’t Picasso.”

She looked at him for a reaction. He smiled a little.

“Well, obviously no one is Picasso,” she went on. “That’s not what I meant. My point is, Oscar had no fear of women’s power; he thrived on it. He got off on how strong the women in his life all were; it turned him on; he sucked on the nipples of all of us. That’s where his strength came from. He went right to the source, and it always flowed. His electricity outlets. I think we all liked Oscar, really liked him, not only loved him—all of us in our own different ways, even his sister, Maxine, with whom he never got on at all. I think she secretly liked him, too.”

“What's the difference?” he interjected. “Love, like.”

“I imagine,” she went on as if he hadn't interrupted, “that Picasso was erotic catnip, with his fear and arrogance and his cold sexual eye. But he didn’t really like women, and I don’t imagine women really liked him, although they may have felt no end of passion for him, the feckless need to conquer or submit. Oscar was needy and soulful, and he liked women without fear. He respected us; he let us be as powerful as we were capable of being. But he wasn’t pussy–whipped, as the excellent expression goes, not by me, not by his wife, not by his mother when she was alive, although he adored her, too. He was fully independent of us. He came and went as he pleased and didn’t let us control him…No, he was an appreciator. I liked him right back, more than I’ve ever liked anyone else, my own children included.”

She stopped for a moment to think. This time, Henry didn’t interrupt her. “Well, we women don’t always like our children, not always; we love them with that primal mother instinct, and we love our power to take care of them, but sometimes we don’t like them somewhere deep inside. I sometimes felt it toward my twin girls—I couldn’t help it—maybe because I had them both at once, so it was intensified, and of course their father was no help whatsoever; I did it all alone. Which is completely preferable, please don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t want any help from Oscar. This way, I had all the power; I was in control. It was a fair trade–off, I thought. You haven’t written anything down yet.”

“Some women go off the opposite edge,” said Henry. “My wife adores our baby son beyond all reason. I worry sometimes that she’ll eat him alive. This morning, she kissed him with the predatory zeal of a succubus.”

Teddy smiled at him, appreciating the phrase. “We all adore our babies beyond reason; it’s the way we’re made. And I didn’t say I thought all women harbor a small amount of dislike for their children; obviously, I couldn’t possibly know that.”

“Abigail Feldman talked at length to me a few days ago about Ethan,” he said. “How it feels to love someone who can’t express love back…She talked about how pure her love for him has always been, untainted by resentment of any kind.”

“That’s love, Henry. You’re not making the distinction. He’s so deeply autistic he’s locked up in his own mind; it’s impossible to dislike someone who isn’t fully there. Dislike requires presence.”

“She was very open with me. You are, too. I appreciate that. I had expected it to be much harder to get you all talking.”

“Then you didn't know Oscar. He always got us all to spill everything, hold nothing back, so we’re well trained.”

“In that case,” said Henry gingerly but with a daring expression, as if he thought he was about to cross a line, “since the subject has been brought up, Maxine suggested to me that the reason Oscar stayed with you was that he felt displaced. That when Ethan was born, of course all Abigail’s energy and time went to her son. Maxine suggested that Oscar replaced her with you.”

“Did she say that?” asked Teddy, hoping she sounded calm; she’d never liked Oscar’s sister one bit, and knew it had always been mutual. It enraged her that this version of her affair with Oscar might make it into Henry’s book in any form. “I’m not surprised that Maxine would draw such a crude, wrongheaded, idiotic conclusion about why Oscar loved me.”

“It’s understandable that someone might draw such a conclusion…It seems like elementary psychology, doesn’t it?”

“I was right,” Teddy snapped. “Those moths are eating into your brain. Burrowing into the wet gray folds and gouging tunnels.” She stopped and looked hard at him, something working in her expression. “I bet,” she said, “you’re one of those failed painters who think they can redeem themselves if they pay homage to Saint Oscar. And I bet you’re projecting your own sexual frustration onto Oscar.”

Henry coughed, probably with surprise.

“Here, have some melon,” she said. “Trust me, the prosciutto is some of the best in Brooklyn.”

“You were right about the wine, I'll give you that,” he said.

“I’m always right,” she said. “It would be much easier for both of us if you just accepted that now and proceeded accordingly. Oscar came to me, in short, because I was exciting. I always liked Abigail, by the way, when I met her at openings and so forth, but I never thought she had much juice. Oscar married her to please his family. He took up with me to please himself.”

“Fair enough,” said Henry.

She imagined he was probably thinking he should appease her, or else he was feeling sorry for her for just being Oscar’s mistress all those years, and never his wife.

“Fair enough,” he repeated.

Nettled, she turned to the window to look out at the pale blue Brooklyn sky, crisscrossed by wires and leaf–filled branches.

“This prosciutto is perfect,” Henry blurted through a mouthful of cantaloupe. “I was going to say ‘delicious,’ but I was afraid you’d stab me.”

“It’s such a precious word,” said Teddy. “No one should use it to refer to anything but food, and even then, with caution. My dearest, oldest friend uses it to describe her grandchildren, the summer morning, a cello sonata on ‘Evening Music,’ and the way her bare feet feel on the sands of Shelter Island. I can’t believe she’s still my friend, but we were college roommates, and then we raised our children together.”

“Lila Scofield,” said Henry, taking another piece of melon.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Foreword

The Women of The Great Man

by Kate Christensen

Death and food are the polar icecaps that hold my brain together. Between them lie the various continents of other passions - words, sex, drink, music, emotional undercurrents, trouble and mischief, and so forth. I've always felt a kinship with troublemakers; if I have a patron saint, it might be Loki, the Norse god of mischief. But whenever I let this troublemaking part of my personality have any kind of free rein in the real world, it's inevitably disastrous; I can't handle the consequences. So I try to behave in real life, and therefore have a certain amount of leftover and unfulfilled mischief that needs to go somewhere, and novel–writing is the most and maybe the only constructive use of it I've been able to come up with so far.

The people I write about tend to be fringe characters, people living on the periphery of fame and success, at odds with the status quo. Ne'er–do–wells and misanthropes can say whatever they want, if only because they have nothing to lose. They're not playing any games, they're not politically correct, and they don't care about decorum; they're all subversive in their own ways. My first novel, In the Drink, is narrated by a 29–year–old ghostwriter who's down and out and unfulfilled and often drunk. The eponymous Jeremy Thrane is a homosexual, daydreamy solipsist who gets dumped by his secret love and wanders around New York City in a fog of appetites and yearning. Hugo, the narrator of The Epicure's Lament, is a suicidal hermit and misanthrope who loves to cook elaborate, rather anachronistic meals for the very people whosecompany he claims to eschew.

These first–person narrators all take over their respective books and run the show. But in The Great Man, there is no central character who narrates the novel and whose point of view infuses the entire book; the novel is written in the third person about a group of women in their 70s and 80s. Teddy, Lila, Maxine, and Abigail are all peripheral to Oscar's fame and success; they gravitate around him like satellites around a sun. "If you were a woman, you could never have anything," Teddy thinks at the end of Chapter Two. Teddy never had the legitimacy of being a wife, Abigail married Oscar and gave up her plan to become a professor, Lila never became a novelist; Maxine wanted to be far more famous than she ever was, and she never found true love.

Oscar (the "great man" who died five years before the novel opens) did and said whatever he wanted, and he always got away with it. But he didn't interest me as a first–person narrator because, unlike Claudia, Jeremy, and Hugo, he didn't suffer, he wasn't tormented, and he was highly successful. Far more interesting to me were the women who lived in his shadow, all of whom have a lot of yearning left in old age. None of them got everything she wanted in life. They're all still fully alive, free of smugness or detachment, and ready for whatever comes next.

I wrote Chapter One, the opening scene with Teddy and Henry, out of the blue one day when first line came into my head, "It's amazing how well you can live on very little money." As soon as I figured out who was speaking (Teddy, Oscar's 74–year–old mistress) and to whom (Henry, Oscar's 40–year–old biographer) and why (he's interviewing her), the thing started to write itself. I was immediately intrigued by Teddy's and Henry's older woman–younger man dynamic. She seems to have all the power in this scene, which is rare for an old woman talking to a much–younger man, or so I would imagine. She has the information about Oscar that Henry wants and needs; she's in control of what she reveals. She toys with him, seduces him with food. By the end of the chapter, they're a little drunk and quite attracted to each other, and both are surprised to find this is so.

I wrote this chapter, and then I forgot all about it. Months later, looking for something else in my files, I stumbled on the scene and read it and realized, finally, that this was the next novel I needed to write. In the course of that chapter, Teddy refers to Oscar's sister, Maxine, and wife, Abigail, and her own best friend, Lila, who also loved Oscar. It dawned on me that this could be a potentially interesting novel about a group of older women; I had never written before about older women, but somehow it made sense that they would be next in my line–up of fringe characters.

By virtue of their social stratum if nothing else, they can say whatever the hell they want; they have nothing to lose. They answer to no one, and they hold the real power, not Oscar, not the biographers. Oscar needed them in order to be complete, needed not only a wife, but also a mistress and countless girlfriends. His colossal ego would have been shaken if Teddy had slept with another man, or if he had known about Abigail's lover. He was dependent on his women to sustain him. "He sucked on our nipples like electricity outlets, and the power always flowed," Teddy tells Henry.

The novel is set in motion when the biographers start interviewing each of the women in turn; Henry and Ralph need Oscar's women to give them the goods, to cough up their memories of him. The dance between interrogators and subjects, the exchange of information about Oscar, forms the basis of the plot. The meeting between the women in the middle of the novel, the only time the four of them are ever together, comes about because of the biographers' questions. Holding the key to The Great Man, as they all do, gives them a sudden and unexpected chance to examine and newly understand their own lives; there's a gradual moving away through the novel from memories of Oscar toward their own lives, which is only natural, given that people are self–centered and the human direction is invariably toward the moment, the present.

The Great Man is thematically as concerned with food and death as The Epicure's Lament, and maybe more deeply so; Hugo is only forty and therefore not on the brink of any death but the one he chooses, and food is, for him, a way of creating perverse social trouble, staying connected to life. Maxine, Abigail, Teddy, and Lila are all staring death in the face, and food is their alleviation from the deep, inescapable loneliness they all share in common. They gather in restaurants to eat, around tables to cook for and feed one another and the biographers and various other characters. Food is the answer to death for them, their lifeline, even more literally, more urgently, than it is for Hugo, although this is never explicitly stated.

Structurally, The Great Man is intended to be a riff on classic romantic comedies, with everyone at odds for a while, then paired off at the end. But this pairing off is a wry echo of more youthful romances, wry because getting together with someone in your 70s is an enterprise with an intrinsically short shelf–life; "happily ever after" becomes "happily till someone goes senile or croaks." Teddy realizes, lying on her green couch, newly in love with her old friend and former boss, Lewis, that their time together is limited; they have to make the most of it. Their newfound passion is tinged with impending loss: love alleviates their fear of death but also throws it into stark relief. The only thing for them to do, then, is to order Peruvian food from the delivery place down the block, "steak with eight kinds of starch," and have a feast."
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Reading Group Guide

1. The novel opens with Oscar Feldman's obituary, which states that Oscar was survived by his sister and wife. The obituary mentions neither his mistress nor their daughters. How did this affect your reading of Chapter One, which is about Teddy St. Cloud? Did you find it confusing? Ironic? Did it take a while to figure out who she was? Why do you think the author chose to begin the book this way?

2. How does the fact that there are two biographers rather than just one add to or detract from the dramatic tension of the book? How would you characterize Henry's and Ralph's aims, feelings, and ideas about Oscar at the beginning of the book? How and why do these shift and change during the novel? What, if anything, does the book review at the end add to the story?

3. Maxine Feldman has some rather complex and very strong feelings about her brother. How would you characterize these feelings? What are some of the reasons behind them? Do you empathize with her?

4. Abigail Feldman tells Henry that she's surprised that she ended up married to a man who came and went, cloistered in an airless apartment taking care of an autistic son, with a black housekeeper for her best friend. What are some of the reasons you think she might have chosen this life instead of the life of an unmarried English lit professor she had always thought she wanted? Do you believe the life she ended up with was more or less happy or fulfilling for her than the one she didn't choose?

5. Do you think any of the women in the novel felt happy and fulfilled by their lives? Did any of them have as much control over their own actions and fates as Oscar had over his?

6. How does this quote from “The End of the Novel of Love,” by Vivian Gornick, relate to Oscar Feldman's women and biographers? “How many women and men have I, in my short, obscure lifetime, watched subjugate themselves to The Great Man, the one who seemed to embody art with a capital A or revolution with a capital R? Our numbers are legion. We ourselves were intelligent, educated, talented, none of us moral monsters, just ordinary people hungry to live life at a symbolic level. At the time, The Great Man seemed not only a good idea but a necessary one, irreplaceable and unforgettable.”

7. Did the revelation that Maxine painted “Helena” surprise you? Does knowing this necessarily change the way the painting is seen? Do you agree that it also changes the way “Mercy” is seen as well, as Ralph says? Why or why not?

8. Throughout the novel, Oscar is a kind of focal point that unites all the characters and provides the story with its drama and flow, even though he's dead. Did you find that Oscar came alive for you in everyone's various feelings about and memories of him, or did he remain somewhat incomplete and shadowy? How do you feel about Oscar-do you admire him? Disapprove of him? Wonder why all the women were so in love with him? Envy him?

9. “If you were a woman, you could never have everything,” Teddy thinks at the end of Chapter Two. “[My mother's] a control freak,” Ruby tells Ralph at the end of Chapter Three. How do you think Teddy's awareness that she couldn't have everything, coupled with her evident desire for control, affected her decision to be the mistress for many decades of a man who was married to someone else and faithful to no one?

10. The book ends at Maxine's retrospective—Maxine died famous, but with the bittersweet knowledge that her pride prevented her from finding lasting love with Jane; Teddy has fallen in love with Lewis, but their time together is limited; and Abigail and Lila have become friends, but neither of them ever found the fulfillment in work each had hoped for as a young woman. Meanwhile, Henry is having a passionate love affair with Ruby, which sickens him with dread about his marriage; Ralph is financially secure now because of his secret deal with Abigail, which is essentially to whitewash the truth about his former idol, Oscar. Each of them has in some way received what she or he wanted, but in a compromised way. Is this a sugary, happy ending, a realistically true-to-life one, or an ironic and complicated one?

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A REMAKABLE BOOK - RICH WITH WIT AND KEEN OBSERVATIONS

    A cursory glance at the title indicates that this is a book about a man. It is, and it isn't. Of course, the man of the title, Oscar Feldman, rather the late Oscar Feldman, a figurative painter, plays a role. But the starring parts are given to three women, Teddy, his mistress Abigail Feldman, his widow and Maxine Feldman, his sister. Each is being interviewed by two biographers who hope to tell Oscar's true story. According to his obituary, Oscar died at the age of 78 after a prodigious career, which was totally devoted to the painting of female nudes. He remained apart from others in the artistic world, and once wrote, 'The female body is the ultimate expression of truth and beauty...' His works were characterized by bold brush strokes, and came to be highly collectible. After reading this, one can easily see why two biographers, Henry Burke and Ralph Washington, were intrigued, determined to find out the truth about Oscar Feldman. What better place to start than with his mistress, Teddy? Now 70-some she is still an attractive woman, angular with chin length white hair and a ready wit. She's a bit of a tease and gives her friend, Lila, a start when she admits 'I wouldn't mind seeing my old carcass in bed with a nubile forty-year-old body.' She's come to terms with who she is now and what her life has been. She gave birth to Oscar's twin daughters, Ruby and Samantha, and basically raised them alone. Yet, she loved Oscar, enjoyed tweaking him in front of a gathering so he would show off. She adored him...did she also manipulate him? She seems to have had the upper hand when she says that she could share him but he could not share her. Maxine is quite a different story. She, too, is an artist yet never received the acclaim that her brother did. She is an unhappy woman, who lives with her dog, Frago, and her assistant, Katerina. Not at all comfortable with who she is, Maxine wears thick glasses and thinks she looks like an 'ugly dwarf like toad.' She detested the thought of anyone writing a biography of Oscar......unless they might shed some light her way. Maxine fears she will die alone and forgotten she longs for a much closer relationship with her years younger assistant. Abigail, whom Teddy called 'Oscar's fat wife' was the favored daughter of a multimillionaire furrier. The apartment she and Oscar shared, a gift from her father, was on 84th and Riverside. She knew her husband little, assuming he would give up the silly notion of being an artist and go into business with his father. What she did know was Teddy she saw her at Oscar's openings. Of course, she was also extremely jealous but also curious. Now that Oscar was gone she ordered almost everything she wanted or needed via the Internet so that she rarely left the apartment and her autistic son, Ethan. Christensen is such a skillful author that she leads readers along, tantalizes them with lively, astute prose until an important secret is revealed and the three women come together to decide what is to be done, what is to be told and what is not. The Great Man won the Pen/Faulkner Award - deservedly so. It is a remarkable novel, rich with wit, keen observations, and characters we'll not soon forget. - Gail Cooke

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2008

    A reviewer

    My first experience with Kate Christensen and her work was simply magical. Her mellow prose and smooth flow of narration was skillfully marred with sharp but true sarcasm, the story felt like real life brimming with intellectual yet spicy richness, very much beyond the usual fun things I tend to read. I rarely pick up heavy and difficult books, sometimes it's nice to pick up a fun story that's an equivalent of junk food, but with Christensen you get all the hot, sizzling action, you read about secrets and kinks that people have and still nourish your head with deeper ideas of why people stay together and love each other. The separation between lust and passion, love and tenderness is sharply broken with each character in the novel but given chance they prove that crossing lines is easier now that Oscar is gone. I found this book to be stunning, luscious, naughty and brilliant, very much to the point and sometimes crass when it came to the language. This novel left me choked up, full of thoughts swarming in my head, a whole locust of ideas. I was finding new things hidden in the plot and new reasons for character's actions on my way home on the bus, while cooking or even in the shower. After reading this I still feel connected to the vibrant story of a fictional painter and the women in his life his wife, sister, the mistress and her friend and other people who mingled with him in the art world, crossing moral lines of what is art and what is pure lust. Oscar Feldman, the great man of the art world left a legacy after his death it was the women who were in his life and not the art that took the main stage in this novel, and relationships between them were as rough as the stormy seas. After his death they slowly realized that him being gone changed things, in what way, well you have to read and find out, but I promise this is an interesting read. There was also a lot of great food going on, from wines to spicy lettuces, saucy dishes and wonderful appetizers which were all part of this story, and in fact it made me crave gourmet food more than ever. I even tired the wine that Teddy, his mistress, drank and it was sumptuous. I was impressed at the dept the author was able to reach, for a young woman she took the ladies in the novel, who were in their seventies and eighties, and made them believable and captivating, it all sounded like words coming from a seasoned writer. Was the man great, yeah, maybe, but the women surrounding him were more than he could have ever imagined or appreciated. Oscar was lucky to have Abigail, Maxine, Teddy and Lila, they took over my mind as I read the book and they are still running through my thoughts, this book really leaves a lasting impression, bravo! - Kasia S.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A very good read with memorable characters

    I thought the story was quite original, especially with the large cast of characters & how they interacted with one another. A very enjoyable read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted August 14, 2011

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