Life Drawing

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Overview

In Life Drawing, her gorgeously written first novel, Robin Black unfolds a fierce, honest, and moving portrait of a woman, and of a couple’s life—the betrayals and intimacies, the needs and regrets, the secrets that sustain love and the ones that threaten to destroy it.
 
Augusta and Owen have moved to the country, and live a quiet, and rather solitary life, Gus as a painter, Owen as a writer. They have left behind the city, and its ...

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Overview

In Life Drawing, her gorgeously written first novel, Robin Black unfolds a fierce, honest, and moving portrait of a woman, and of a couple’s life—the betrayals and intimacies, the needs and regrets, the secrets that sustain love and the ones that threaten to destroy it.
 
Augusta and Owen have moved to the country, and live a quiet, and rather solitary life, Gus as a painter, Owen as a writer. They have left behind the city, and its associations to a troubled past, devoting their days to each other and their art. But beneath the surface of this tranquil existence lies the heavy truth of Gus’s past betrayal, an affair that ended, but that quietly haunts Owen, Gus and their marriage.
 
When Alison Hemmings, a beautiful British divorcée, moves in next door, Gus, feeling lonely and isolated, finds herself drawn to Alison, and as their relationship deepens, the lives of the three neighbors become more and more tightly intertwined. With the arrival of Alison’s daughter Nora, the emotions among them grow so intense that even the slightest misstep has the potential to do irrevocable harm to them all
 
With lyrical precision and taut, suspenseful storytelling, Black steadily draws us deeper into a world filled with joys and darkness, love and sorrows, a world that becomes as real as our own. Life Drawing is a novel as beautiful and unsparing as the human heart.
 
Praise for Life Drawing
 
“The simple facts—Gus’s relationship with Owen, her love affair with Bill—are, of course, not simple. [Robin] Black is a writer of great wisdom, and illuminates, without undue emphasis, the flickering complexity of individual histories. . . . The atmosphere of their love, of this house, is one of the most powerful aspects of Black's unsettling and compelling novel. . . . [Her] taut, elegant prose is both effective and affecting. . . . Life Drawing is at once quiet and memorable. This makes it far from fashionable, and all the more to be applauded. Its author pursues real and vital questions. Astringent and wise, Black is not afraid to discomfit her readers. This novel, like life, is uneasy: what a relief.”—Claire Messud, The Guardian (UK)
 
“Suffused with a remarkably sustained emotional intensity . . . Every intimate contour of the couple’s relationship is mapped by Black with devastating accuracy. Full of insight into the fragility of marriage, this is a memorable read.”—The Sunday Times (London)
 
“A gorgeously written portrait of the intimate workings of a long-term relationship.”Good Housekeeping (UK)
 
“Fine-tuned and exactly observed . . . With such well-rounded characters and a highwire level of suspense, the novel builds to a devastating resolution.”The Daily Mail (UK)
 
“Black's command of the story carries us swiftly through ever more dangerous rapids. . . . She captures the various pains and pleasures of love, and how betrayal distorts and damages, with superb subtlety.”—BBC
 
“A brutal yet tender look at marriage and creative partnership that hums with thriller-like tension . . . It might be the nearest thing to a perfect novel that I have ever read.”The Bookseller (UK)
 
“Black’s characters are three-dimensional, and her depiction of their relationships, particularly between the two women, is masterly. An astute inquiry into relationships and betrayal, this novel is nerve-wracking yet irresistibly readable.”Publishers Weekly

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Mary Pols
Black's writing is clear and direct, but laced with…observations about the way people relate that resonate well after the book is closed…Life Drawing is…provocative, filled with glimpses of the nastiness that makes us human and the power of losing someone with whom it seems the conversation, however difficult, however punishing, should never end.
Publishers Weekly
03/03/2014
A middle-aged married couple, their new friend, and her daughter interact, sometimes stormily, in this emotionally complex novel from Black (If I Loved You I Would Tell You This). Beginning with the information that one of these characters is now dead, the book draws the reader in from the first page and builds narrative tension almost ceaselessly to the bitter end. Owen and Augusta, a writer and a painter, respectively, have retreated from their former cosmopolitan life in Philadelphia to a rural idyll in a farmhouse, hoping to devote themselves to their work. Soon, however, a neighbor, Alison Hemmings, moves into a nearby rental. At first, Augusta and Alison get along famously, but then Alison’s early-20s daughter, Nora, arrives for a visit and becomes infatuated with Owen. The situation threatens to reopen old wounds— Augusta previously had an affair with the father of one of her art students. Added tension accrues when Alison’s violent ex-husband, Paul, appears, creating a situation that eventually boils over. Black’s characters are three-dimensional, and her depiction of their relationships, particularly between the two women, is masterly. An astute inquiry into relationships and betrayal, this novel is nerve-wracking yet irresistibly readable. (July)
From the Publisher
“The simple facts—Gus’s relationship with Owen, her love affair with Bill—are, of course, not simple. [Robin] Black is a writer of great wisdom, and illuminates, without undue emphasis, the flickering complexity of individual histories. . . . The atmosphere of their love, of this house, is one of the most powerful aspects of Black's unsettling and compelling novel. . . . [Her] taut, elegant prose is both effective and affecting. . . . Life Drawing is at once quiet and memorable. This makes it far from fashionable, and all the more to be applauded. Its author pursues real and vital questions. Astringent and wise, Black is not afraid to discomfit her readers. This novel, like life, is uneasy: what a relief.”—Claire Messud, The Guardian (UK)
 
“Suffused with a remarkably sustained emotional intensity . . . Every intimate contour of the couple’s relationship is mapped by Black with devastating accuracy. Full of insight into the fragility of marriage, this is a memorable read.”—The Sunday Times (London)
 
“A gorgeously written portrait of the intimate workings of a long-term relationship.”Good Housekeeping (UK)
 
“Fine-tuned and exactly observed . . . With such well-rounded characters and a highwire level of suspense, the novel builds to a devastating resolution.”The Daily Mail (UK)
 
“Black's command of the story carries us swiftly through ever more dangerous rapids. . . . She captures the various pains and pleasures of love, and how betrayal distorts and damages, with superb subtlety.”—BBC
 
“A brutal yet tender look at marriage and creative partnership that hums with thriller-like tension . . . It might be the nearest thing to a perfect novel that I have ever read.”The Bookseller (UK)
 
“Black’s characters are three-dimensional, and her depiction of their relationships, particularly between the two women, is masterly. An astute inquiry into relationships and betrayal, this novel is nerve-wracking yet irresistibly readable.”Publishers Weekly
 
“In her debut novel, Black skillfully conveys the way a long-term relationship can so easily shift between love and affection and a petty tallying of old hurts and disappointments. In addition, she delivers a hair-raising portrait of a poisonous female friendship. Full of emotional turmoil yet subtle in its effect, this elegant novel is sure to draw in both women’s-fiction and literary-fiction fans.”Booklist
 
“Gus is known for her precision as an artist, and this quality is evident in her narration; her clear and efficient voice undergirds the novel's lack of melodrama. The focus on friendship and family will appeal to fans of women’s fiction, while the role creativity plays in the lives of the characters will attract readers of literary fiction.”Library Journal
 
“A riveting story about the corrosive effects of betrayal, and a beautifully written meditation on the delicate balance of intimacy and isolation within a long marriage.”—Alice Sebold
 
Life Drawing is a magnificent literary achievement with a combination of wisdom and velocity that distinguishes it from any other novel I have read. An intimate revelation of love’s unlikely endurance and of art’s role in reviving and redeeming the past, it is also a heart-stopping, jaw-dropping thriller. Black’s characters, rendered in her signature breathtaking prose, are complex and unfamiliar, yet the joys and sorrows of their days feel universal. I deeply loved Owen and Gus, the book’s married protagonists, and I was pulling for them from the first page to the last. Life Drawing will fill your head and heart with a world of real-life ghosts, of careening desire and creative inspiration, and of some inescapable truths about human fragility. Novels are only very rarely this insightful or this gripping, and Life Drawing, which is both, will leave you changed.”—Karen Russell
 
“Robin Black’s Life Drawing is a rare and exquisitely wrought portrait of two people equally devoted to their marriage and their art, a couple striving to make sense of a dilemma in which fidelity, honesty, kindness, and betrayal all make claims. The prose is admirably exacting, tender, wise, and elegant—and the story left this reader’s heart aching.”—David Wroblewski
 
“A wise, finely observed portrait of the workings of a marriage, as compelling as it is convincing. Life Drawing is intelligent, clear-eyed storytelling, exploring love and jealousy and the mistakes we make in their name.”—M. L. Stedman
Library Journal
02/01/2014
Having grabbed out attention with the story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, Black returns with a debut novel about a couple living the good, creative life in the country—she's a painter, he's a writer—when an alluring British woman moves into the house next door and disrupts everything. Pitched to the Lorrie Moore, Amy Bloom, and Mary Gaitskill crowds.
Kirkus Reviews
2014-05-17
The first novel from short story writer Black (If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, 2010) tries to parse the intimacy, love, betrayals and resentments that comprise any long relationship.From the first sentences, it's clear that narrator Gus (short for Augusta) is writing after her husband Owen's death, although the novel covers his last months. Together since their 20s, painter Gus, now 47, and 51-year-old writer Owen didn't feel the need to marry until a few years ago, when the relationship was rocked by Gus' brief affair—an affair she blames on her distress over Owen's inability to father children. When the affair ended, she confessed all to Owen and they recommitted to each other. For the last two years, the couple, now legally joined, has lived in happy near isolation on a small farmstead somewhere outside Philadelphia. When middle-aged divorcée Alison moves in next door, she disrupts their Eden, already fraught with marital tension; despite her avowals of deep intimacy with Owen, Gus resents the fact that his writer's block means she can't discuss her work with him and she obviously can't mention the emails she's been getting from a former art student who happens to be her ex-lover's daughter. Drawing away from Owen, Gus spends increasing time with Alison, an aspiring painter whose husband abused her. The women discuss art, but Gus also starts confiding in Alison about Owen in ways that feel like a second betrayal. Then Alison's daughter Nora shows up. Gus, whose own mother died when she was a small child, is jealous of their mother-daughter intimacy. She also senses that Nora, an aspiring writer who admires Owen's books, is a sexual threat.Black captures the nooks and crannies of Gus' psyche, both self-aware and self-justifying, but doesn't allow poor Owen space to breathe; her narrow focus, while often acutely insightful, makes for a claustrophobic reading experience.
From the Publisher
“The simple facts—Gus’s relationship with Owen, her love affair with Bill—are, of course, not simple. [Robin] Black is a writer of great wisdom, and illuminates, without undue emphasis, the flickering complexity of individual histories. . . . The atmosphere of their love, of this house, is one of the most powerful aspects of Black’s unsettling and compelling novel. . . . [Her] taut, elegant prose is both effective and affecting. . . . Life Drawing is at once quiet and memorable. This makes it far from fashionable, and all the more to be applauded. Its author pursues real and vital questions. Astringent and wise, Black is not afraid to discomfit her readers. This novel, like life, is uneasy: what a relief.”—Claire Messud, The Guardian (UK)
 
“The page-turning suspense of Robin Black’s novel comes from her beautiful, honest portrait of a marriage, of a life. . . . A novel of consequence, and a stunning one.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Gripping . . . The power of this story is how it illuminates, in utterly compelling detail, the complex give-and-take of a couple trying to save their marriage once betrayal has entered the picture.”O: The Oprah Magazine
 
“Stunning . . . [Black] is that rare writer whose gift for prose is matched by her mastery of the other elements that make a great novel. . . . Black takes us well beneath the surface of her much-told midlife story, often-analyzed marital crisis, traditional setup for a classic denouement—making out of all of it a reading experience that is breathtaking, shiny and new. . . . Black’s psychological prowess and incisive observations lend an edge even to seemingly straightforward scenes. . . . Truly a brilliant, novel novel.”Chicago Tribune
 
“Races to its resolution . . . Black’s writing is clear and direct [with] observations about the way people relate that resonate well after the book is closed.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
Life Drawing is a tour de force, a taut, suspenseful story so beautifully written that it took my breath away.”—Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train

“A thriller and a love story . . . a novel that will make you want to hug the person you love and never let go.”—NPR

“Explosive . . . impressive . . . a fine-brushed study of marriage’s light and shadow . . . There’s truth to be found in her portrait of long-lived love, its outlines painfully vulnerable to the perspectives of others.”Vogue
 
“[A] nuanced debut.”People
 
“An examination of the fragility of human relationships and desires, and one of the more powerfully written books so far this year.”The Roanoke Times

“Suffused with a remarkably sustained emotional intensity . . . Every intimate contour of the couple’s relationship is mapped by Black with devastating accuracy. Full of insight into the fragility of marriage, this is a memorable read.”—The Sunday Times (London)
 
“A gorgeously written portrait of the intimate workings of a long-term relationship.”Good Housekeeping (UK)
 
“Fine-tuned and exactly observed . . . With such well-rounded characters and a highwire level of suspense, the novel builds to a devastating resolution.”The Daily Mail (UK)
 
“Black's command of the story carries us swiftly through ever more dangerous rapids. . . . She captures the various pains and pleasures of love, and how betrayal distorts and damages, with superb subtlety.”—BBC
 
“A brutal yet tender look at marriage and creative partnership that hums with thriller-like tension . . . It might be the nearest thing to a perfect novel that I have ever read.”The Bookseller (UK)
 
“Black’s characters are three-dimensional, and her depiction of their relationships, particularly between the two women, is masterly. An astute inquiry into relationships and betrayal, this novel is nerve-wracking yet irresistibly readable.”Publishers Weekly
 
“In her debut novel, Black skillfully conveys the way a long-term relationship can so easily shift between love and affection and a petty tallying of old hurts and disappointments. In addition, she delivers a hair-raising portrait of a poisonous female friendship. Full of emotional turmoil yet subtle in its effect, this elegant novel is sure to draw in both women’s-fiction and literary-fiction fans.”Booklist
 
“Gus is known for her precision as an artist, and this quality is evident in her narration; her clear and efficient voice undergirds the novel's lack of melodrama. The focus on friendship and family will appeal to fans of women’s fiction, while the role creativity plays in the lives of the characters will attract readers of literary fiction.”Library Journal
 
“A riveting story about the corrosive effects of betrayal, and a beautifully written meditation on the delicate balance of intimacy and isolation within a long marriage.”—Alice Sebold
 
Life Drawing is a magnificent literary achievement with a combination of wisdom and velocity that distinguishes it from any other novel I have read. An intimate revelation of love’s unlikely endurance and of art’s role in reviving and redeeming the past, it is also a heart-stopping, jaw-dropping thriller. Black’s characters, rendered in her signature breathtaking prose, are complex and unfamiliar, yet the joys and sorrows of their days feel universal. I deeply loved Owen and Gus, the book’s married protagonists, and I was pulling for them from the first page to the last. Life Drawing will fill your head and heart with a world of real-life ghosts, of careening desire and creative inspiration, and of some inescapable truths about human fragility. Novels are only very rarely this insightful or this gripping, and Life Drawing, which is both, will leave you changed.”—Karen Russell
 
“Robin Black’s Life Drawing is a rare and exquisitely wrought portrait of two people equally devoted to their marriage and their art, a couple striving to make sense of a dilemma in which fidelity, honesty, kindness, and betrayal all make claims. The prose is admirably exacting, tender, wise, and elegant—and the story left this reader’s heart aching.”—David Wroblewski
 
“A wise, finely observed portrait of the workings of a marriage, as compelling as it is convincing. Life Drawing is intelligent, clear-eyed storytelling, exploring love and jealousy and the mistakes we make in their name.”—M. L. Stedman

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400068562
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/15/2014
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 217,797
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Robin Black is the author of the critically acclaimed short story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a finalist for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including One Story, Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, O: The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and the anthology The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I. A recipient of fellowships from the Leeway Foundation and the MacDowell Colony, Black was the 2012 Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bryn Mawr College and has taught most recently in the Brooklyn College MFA Program. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.

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Read an Excerpt

1

In the days leading up to my husband Owen’s death, he visited Alison’s house every afternoon. I would watch him trudge over the small, snowy hill between our two properties, half the time away from me, half the time toward me. And I would wonder what he thought about as he went. Wonder too if Alison watched him from a window of her own, and whether the expression she saw on his face as he approached was very different from the one I saw as he came home.

In the weeks that followed his death, I would stare out the same window, the one in our living room, nearest the fireplace, for as much as an hour at a time. Sometimes even longer than that. There was a huge blizzard on the day after his funeral. I watched as nearly three feet of snow fell to the ground, staying all through January, then much of February, picking up a few more inches now and then, drifting against anything in its way, flattening the landscape so the hill wasn’t quite so distinct anymore and the trees all looked shorter, their trunks buried deep.

It was, I imagine, very beautiful. But imagining and remembering are not quite the same thing. I don’t remember thinking it anything but eerie at the time.

Owen wasn’t buried. I had known practically since the day we met that he wanted to be cremated. We’d had the sort of courtship—though the word would have seemed old-fashioned to us both—that included a lot of talk about the meaning of life, the prospect of death. We were young, very young, and undoubtedly neither of us believed, not really, that we would ever die, which made that sort of discussion, often late at night, often just after sex, exhilarating. There was a beauty to be found in the transitory nature of existence, we would say. There was liberation in the acceptance of mortality. Religion was for fools. Religion, along with marriage ceremonies, Thanksgiving dinners, station wagons, procreation, and so on. Burial was a perverse notion if you really thought about it, without the assumptions of the culture blinding you. All those dead bodies, taking up all that land. A peculiar, fetishistic custom.

We were to be a cremation couple. It was established early on.

Except that we were never going to die.

I thought about so many things during those first snowy weeks, including the fact that I too was mortal, that I too would disappear one day, leaving behind such things as panes of glass through which other people could gaze, and cold that they could feel. Snow that had to be shoveled, not just contemplated. Practical issues for which I would no longer be a help or a hindrance. Relationships abandoned like unfinished thoughts.

It isn’t that no one close to me had ever died before. I was forty-seven years old. Few reach that age unscathed and I hadn’t made it past toddlerhood before a brain aneurism took my mother in a matter of hours; then my oldest sister, Charlotte, lost a filthy battle to cancer when she was forty-six; and my father was wandering his solitary, demented way toward a graceless, profoundly unjust kind of death.

But Owen was Owen. Owen was me. I was Owen. Anger and all. Betrayals and all. Owen would walk into a room and I might well want to kill him—so to speak—but at the same time, for much of my life, I couldn’t really have told you where I left off and he began. And then he died. Leaving me standing at a window, staring into a landscape as though, well, as though he might just reappear one day. Of course.

I was certain about cremation, but in fact a lot of our other opinions had softened over the years. That is what happens. There was a marriage ceremony, eventually. There were attempts to procreate, which led to discovering that Owen could not, so when we bought the minivan we had sworn we never would, it was for hauling my paintings, not children. We never did get religion, either of us, but we started to value the idea of ritual. Still, no celebration of Thanksgiving with its intimations of smallpox- infected blankets and European domination, but on the second Saturday of April we threw a big party, invited old friends out to the country, cooked an insane amount of food, drank too much, and talked appreciatively of pagan celebrations of spring. And back when we were city dwellers, we went through a phase of lighting candles every Wednesday night. “Ain’t nobody’s Sabbath but our own,” Owen sang the first time that we did, so we played Billie Holiday every Wednesday after that.

But softened isn’t really the right word. Our opinions didn’t soften. More accurately, we reacted to life. And we reacted, time and again, to threats. To us. To us being us. Why did we finally get married? Because I had broken the promise that we had never made. Owen forgave me, or anyway, we moved forward, but we did it with a vow this time. Why did we try to have children? Because there was a period in there when the possibility—absurd five years before!—that we needed more than just each other, crept into our thoughts. Our fabric seemed to be wearing thin. And why this desire for ritual? To anchor us. I will be here the second Saturday of every April. I will be here every Wednesday night.

We never saw it that way, of course. I saw it that way later on. That’s what happens when one of you dies. The clock stops. The story ends. You can make some sense of it all. Begin to see patterns. Begin to understand. Maybe you can only begin to understand. Maybe the patterns are only the ones that you impose. But the thing takes on a different shape. It takes on a shape.

Or, as one of my teachers used to say, you cannot see a landscape you are in.

But you do begin to see it when you step away.

This is me, just before my first glimpse of Alison: I am standing, hands on hips, staring at a patch of basil that has gone to seed, peeved at myself for having once again planted so much and once again failed to harvest it at the right time. It is one of those obscenely hot late July days when you walk outside and think there’s been some kind of terrible mistake, because weather can’t really be meant to be this oppressive. My hair, long and still close to entirely black, is tightly braided, pulled off my neck, clipped straight on the back of my head, so if the sun weren’t too high for shadows, mine would look like I had feathers sticking up. I am wearing just a bra and shorts. My body, at forty-seven, is tan from gardening, mowing, walking. And I am strong, stronger than I ever was before I became a country dweller. My face? My face is broad, my Russian forebears lending me their wide, prominent cheekbones, their heavy square jaws. And my eyes, which are dark blue, are bluer still under thick black brows. If I am beautiful, I am not classically so; but at forty-seven I think I am beautiful. More than I ever did at twenty, at thirty. By this time I mind mirrors less. If I am honest, I will say I sometimes seek them out. I look at my face, at my body, with a kind of clinical detachment into which a strand of admiration inserts itself. I always wanted to be powerful. In this decade, finally, I look powerful. I feel powerful.

And I feel alone. Standing there in front of the house, knowing the mail has already arrived so there won’t be anyone close again for another twenty-four hours, I am alone in a way that is familiar to me by this day, but that I never experienced until nearly three years before, when we moved to this otherworldly place. It is a kind of solitude that continues even when Owen is standing beside me. It is a solitude that includes him. We are apart from the rest of the world. We are invisible to it. We have become by this time a single being, a being that argues with itself from time to time—as a knee may ache, as a tired back might refuse to cooperate, so you say, Oh for God’s sake, could you stop being so difficult; but you are saying it to a part of yourself.

While I am peering down at herbs, Owen is in the barn, writing—or trying to. For months now, he has been that weary back that won’t cooperate. He imagines that his prose has wandered to a distant acre of our universe, curled up and died. He still spends days inside the barn but he comes out looking grieved. I feel this ache all the time, though my own work is going well, and it is probably this that has made me wander out into the garden, into the day, so horribly hot. I am restless for him. I am restless as part of him.

The basil I am eyeing with such irritation is rampant. The air smells of it and of lavender. Owen and I are enthusiastic, ignorant gardeners. We are inadequately attentive. We are perpetually amazed. We are innocents to nature, stupefied by its every trick. Even as I am annoyed with myself for letting the basil go to seed, I am also in awe of it. Magic! These beings that continue to grow, that know what to do next, and next, and next.

“Halloooo . . .”

I am not alone.

First, a British voice. Then a small woman in a violet sundress. With a mop of gray curls. “Alison Hemmings,” she says, her hand outstretched long before I might reach it. “I’ve just rented the house across the way. I’m so sorry if I’m here at a bad time . . .” A smiling face. Round cheeks. A firm grip. Startling light gray eyes, almost silver to match her hair.

No one during our time has lived in the house next door, the only building within sight of our home. I have stopped thinking of it as having an interior. It has become solely a shabbily beautiful façade.

“Gus Edelman,” I say. “Augusta, really, but Gus. Welcome.”

My voice is riddled with question marks; and then I remember that I am only in a bra. Folded in among the thoughts of a neighbor is the thought that the bra, which is purple, may pass for a bathing suit; then the thought that it serves her right, barging in—though she hasn’t really barged in. Then the thought that it’s too late to say anything about my bra. We have absorbed the fact of it already. We have moved on.

“It’s so lovely here, isn’t it?” she says.

“Yes, it is,” I say. “Can I help you out in some way?” It isn’t quite right, I know. I sound like a salesperson at the end of the day hurrying to close the store.

She tells me she is leasing the place. “At least through September,” she says. “Maybe beyond. Depending on how things go.”

“I hadn’t realized they were renting it out.”

The owners, a young couple who inherited the property from distant family, have only ever visited once, maybe eighteen months before. They walked the land, several acres, had seemed to be arguing and then had driven off, never to return.

“You haven’t seen the advert?” she asks. “Because you’re in it. You and . . . is it your husband?”

I shake my head, frowning. “I had no idea . . .”

“On one of those rental sites. One of the features is the couple who lives next door. The writer. The painter.”

“Oh. How strange. They never mentioned . . .”

She smiles. “I promise not to be a pest, but it did make the setting more appealing. I’m actually a painter too. And somehow the notion of a creative enclave . . . plus I figured if the ad mentioned you, you probably weren’t axe murderers.”

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Reading Group Guide

 
Writing is an odd profession. I sometimes startle when I realize how much of my time I spend fretting about people who don’t actually exist. Am I truly an adult woman playing for hours each day with imaginary friends?
It turns out that I am.

For me, it has been important to try and understand what drives a seemingly sane, even sensible, down-­to-­earth person to dwell in her own imagination so much of the time. What are the moments that have shaped this need in me? How does my fiction relate to my life, to the whole experience of living a life, as I understand it? How can my thoughts about my “real life” endow my written work with a life of its own?

Of course, I’m not the only person who wonders about these things. At events, in interviews, I am often asked, as I believe all writers are, about the creative process, about the interaction between daily life and that other world, the one that finds its way from an author’s imagination, onto the page; and then off the page again, as the reader’s imagination is engaged.

“Why do you write?” The truth is that I don’t have an answer—­yet. But I have a seemingly insatiable curiosity, myself.
So I have kept notes of a kind, written essays on the subject, trying both to understand for myself and to convey to others how this whole strange ­business works—­for me, anyway. How I think about myself as a writer, how those imaginary friends of mine and I interact.

I very much hope you enjoy the three pieces that are included here. They are glimpses at my process, at what lies behind Life Drawing, and at why it is the book it is, the one you are holding in your hand.

Finally, I share these essays with much gratitude to you, all readers, because without you every writer’s imagination, including mine, would remain forever trapped on the page.

Robin Black
November 2014

 

 
Origins
When I was ten years old, my maternal grandmother moved into our home.

Grandma was a tough cookie. Stetl born, Lower East Side raised, the second oldest of eight children, she had a reputation as something of a drill sergeant. “There’s a right way and wrong way to do everything,” she would say, and it was clear into which category her way invariably fell. But she was also a woman of contradictions, unexpectedly tenderhearted and always likely to side with the underdog, yet someone who hadn’t hesitated to smack around her own sons when she thought they’d stepped out of line. A good woman? A bad woman? A complicated woman. And, by the time she moved in with us, a seventy-two-­year-­old woman paralyzed from the waist down from spinal tumors for more than ten years, widowed for most of that time.

As a writer, it’s inevitable that you will wonder sometimes what made you the sort of writer you are: what periods of your life, what particular events, what people. And of course there is no one answer, but there are occasional little glimmers you can find, moments and exchanges that seem to explain something, if not everything.

Grandma’s move into our home offers such a glimmer for me.

During the initial years of Grandma’s paralysis, including after her widowhood, she lived alone, a couple of hours away from us. Her six sisters did her shopping, provided her with constant ­company, playing crucial roles in helping her maintain her independence. One of my earliest memories is of watching her wash the dishes, the gravity of her weight against the sink keeping her upright. She wasn’t exactly mobile, but she wasn’t exactly immobile either until something shifted the wrong way in her spine, robbing her of the ability to live alone. When she moved in with us she became entirely bedridden—­as she would remain until her death at nearly eighty-­three.

I was ten years old that first day, November 1972, and I wasn’t exactly a happy child. My father, alcoholic and depressive, had been institutionalized for several months in ’71, an experience preceded and followed by disorienting chaos in our home. I wasn’t carefree or untouched by sorrow, but I remember being giddy around my grandmother’s move into our home. It seemed like such fun, so cool to have her there. I wrote poems to commemorate the event and I raced my brothers in her two wheelchairs, and I made a lot of what I thought were very funny jokes about—­of all things—­an imaginary suitor for her.

Mercifully, I don’t remember the specifics of this long-­running joke of mine. He had a name, I know. He had a spiel. All of it now gone from my mind. But what I do remember, very clearly, is the evening when my mother took me into  the hallway and suggested that I stop. “You know,” she said, as gently as was possible, “if Grandma hadn’t been in a wheelchair, stuck in her apartment, she might have had a real suitor. She might have remarried after my father died. It may be a joke that makes her sad.”

My memories of that moment are painful still. What shame I felt, even horror, at my mother’s words. I had thought I was being funny, cheering everybody up, when in fact I had been causing pain. I sense even now the reverberations of a shattering at my foundation, a change at a molecular level of who I understood myself to be. No longer a child who could look at another person without wondering what their life was like, but someone with a need to know what other people’s stories might actually be. Really. What is truly happening. Below the surface. Not because I suddenly became a better person, but because I was terrified of again inadvertently being cruel.

And the impact goes beyond having had an empathic imagination shocked into me that night. When my story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this came out, I was asked repeatedly why I wrote so often about older women, women in their seventies and beyond. “I feel a commitment to reminding people that older women are still complex human beings,” I would say. A worthy goal? Of course. A lifelong creative penance for having been a little girl who hurt someone by forgetting that fact? Perhaps.

What does it take to write fiction? What determines our obsessions? What guides us toward the places and people by which our imaginations are sparked?

These questions are both unavoidable and unanswerable. But I know that all our lives are scattered with just such glimmers as the one I have described, shimmering shards of ourselves that can provide a glimpse of how we became who we are—­and that may always remain sharp enough to cut.

 
Lessons
For a long time now, I have suspected that there is a connection between regret and fiction writing—­beyond the obvious possibility that one might regret having started to write fiction.

Regret is among a very few emotions that cannot exist without an accompanying narrative. I wish I had gone on that trip because ... I would have met the love of my life; I wouldn’t have set the house on fire; I would have seen Paris before I died, and been less sad at the prospect of mortality. All regret carries within it a particular kind of fiction, one in which the rules of causality and chance are suspended—­in favor of the certainty of a happy end. We, who should know better, convince ourselves that we can know what would have happened in the past ... if only. Regret makes confident storytellers of us all.

It also makes us fans of bold action, retrospectively, anyway. Social scientists and psychologists concur that people are more likely to regret what they have not done than what they have done. It’s the missed opportunity that feels poignant. The road not taken. The challenge to which we did not rise. The one who got away.

And what does this have to do with writing fiction? Rather a lot, I think.

Often, with a project, I reach a point at which the whole structure suddenly takes on a moribund, fruitless quality. The narrative, once brimming with life and promise, has died. It’s a terrifying moment. I feel immediately despondent and also strangely trapped by the story itself, as I have written it. As soon as words are put on paper, they can take on an unhelpfully inevitable quality, cornering us: Here is what’s happened so far. Now what can you do to fix it?

But, as regret narratives demonstrate, what didn’t happen in a story may actually be a far greater resource for imaginative thinking than what did. These days, when I hit that frightening place, I go back to the pages, looking for an unexplored moment brimming with a character’s might have beens.

I look for lines like: I thought of telling him what had happened the night before, but decided against it. Or, I could have run after her and pleaded my case, but instead, went back inside. Or, She stared at the phone for a very long while, but never picked it up. In other words, I look for the points of inaction that my characters might themselves later regret.

This happened to me with Life Drawing. Early in the novel Gus visits Alison after Alison’s former husband has made a horrible scene in the driveway; but in the earliest drafts of the book, I had Gus only consider visiting Alison, then decide against going. When I reread those drafts, though, it felt like an exchange between the two women was missing. A scene in which Alison might show some genuine vulnerability, in which Gus might be the one offering support—­or failing to, due to her own limitations. And so I went back into the book, searching for a moment at which someone had shied away from taking action; and sure enough! I found Gus staring at Alison’s home, thinking she ought to go check on her neighbor, and then turning away. So of course I remedied that, pushing her through Alison’s door.

I write about it now as if Gus were the one making decisions, but who was engaging in the avoidance, really? Gus? Or her creator? What if the scene turned out to be too complex to write? What if I lacked the finesse to make it both powerful and subtle, as it needed to be?
For an author, it’s tempting to keep things simple, to write the easiest path. When a piece is fresh I have something like a heat sensor that detects possible complications, the difficult exchanges, the entanglements that might arise; and my first instinct is to avoid such sparks and fires—­until one day I sit down at the computer to find a narrative that has taken on that deathly, immobile quality.

In real life, we don’t get to return to our twenties and step onto the airplane we were afraid to fly; or audition for the play that excited and scared us; or ask the beauty to dinner; or take the job in Boston. In real life, the past has passed and all we can do is tell ourselves poignant, intuitively well-­crafted stories of what might have been. If only ...

But in fiction, what is done can be undone and what hasn’t been done can still be done. And maybe this is some of the joy of being an author, this magical ability to reach back in time and replace a poorly placed no with a well-­placed yes. And see what happens. See that something happens.

And, whatever happens, no regrets.

 
Intuitions
My tale begins with an abandonment. Mid 2009. A twice-­drafted novel, already sold while in progress as part of a two-­book deal. My dawning realization that it wasn’t very good, that it would never be very good, that it was, in fact, that banal yet terrifying thing I swore I would never create: the desk drawer novel. The starter novel. The learner’s novel.

I got going too late at this writing game to waste years on a practice book, I told myself. And the Heavens laughed.

I found myself still under contract with the directive to write a different novel, one I had yet to begin. In many ways, this was an enviable place to be, I know. But also not. Because it turns out that if you spent your forties writing short stories mostly under the assumption that no one terribly far outside your own circle of family and friends will ever read them, it’s not then so easy to write anything, much less a form at which you’ve already failed, certain that there are editors looking at their watches, marking days off on their calendars, peering over your shoulder, wondering what the hell you’re doing with your time.

It was an awful couple of years. The unfulfilled contract made me miserable. I woke up morning after morning physically ill with anxiety. In dark hours, I told my husband that I’d already said what I had to say in my eleven stories, that I was finished writing fiction. The well was dry. The need to communicate, sated. And that the novel was a dumb form anyway. This last bit mumbled while pouting and kicking at the couch. Stupid novels.

By January 2012, when I arrived at an annual retreat I shared with writer friends, I was a wreck. It had been nearly three years since I’d withdrawn my mediocre novel, and in that time, I had started and stopped at least four new projects. I hated them. They hated me. I hated myself. Oh, and did I mention, I had officially given up? Well, not officially. I hadn’t yet informed my agent or my editors, but deep in my heart I just knew....

On the first night of that retreat, I told my friends that the whole project was doomed. Rather than write, I would use the week to goof off, reading and composing whatever—­prose poems, limericks, ad copy—­rather than keep trying to make a book appear from thin, unimaginably thin and ungenerous, air.

I spent the first five days of that retreat reading Ovid—­with no idea what led me there. I read about Medusa, and I read about Pygmalion and Galatea. I read about the woman who could turn people into stone and the woman who had once been stone herself. I imagined Medusa seeking out Galatea so she could ask for a report on what it was like to be a statue—­Galatea being the only person who could inform her about that state. So, about these people I keep petrifying, what are they actually going through? I felt sorry for Medusa, for her hideous visage, for her shitty future, for how ­everyone hated her. And I felt sorry for Galatea, too, awakening from eternity to find herself being fondled by some man whose appreciation of her perfection left no room for her choice, for her desires.

And then on day six of the retreat I put Ovid to the side and wrote the first five thousand words of Life Drawing—­five thousand words that have remained essentially the same through every revision. The next day, I wrote the next four thousand words.

I tell the story that way, with no real lead up to that happy turn, because that is what it felt like at the time. One day I couldn’t write a novel; and the next day I could write a novel—­a novel that over the following year poured out of me in a way no story ever had, as though all I’d had to do was remove the lid and tip the container just a bit.

But what had actually happened?

It is, of course, impossible to know. Creativity cannot be understood. It can be analyzed and maybe even quantified in some ways, but never understood. There were elements to which I can point as having likely helped. Wise comments from the women there with me, and also from other friends who were not. A sudden realization that having cut my teeth writing about families, I was tired of writing about families. But among those elements and more, it is the five days of reading Ovid to which I now return. Because in those ancient stories, my own obsessions were lurking, outside my anxieties about productivity, directing me back toward why I write.
The connection between Life Drawing and my reading then is clear to me now. Life Drawing is a novel about many things, but at its core lie questions involving the relationships between art and mortality, art and grief, art and redemption. What does it mean, as an artist, to give life to human figures? What does it mean when an artist cannot give life? And how does all of that relate to the human capacity, again and again, to renew our faith in others, in ourselves? As with the Ovid I read, these are the strands that are braided at my novel’s heart: mortality, forgiveness, and art.

So, when did I figure out that my reading about stone figures, mortal petrification, statues coming to life, and irreversible punishment, had any bearing on my book? Only today. The day on which the manuscript has been taken from my hands and sent off to the copyediting department for polishing.

And that is how novels are made.

Except it is not.

The next novelist to tell you the conception story of her book is unlikely to recount immersing herself in Ovid’s Metamorphoses for five days. She may talk about the bad marriage she needed to leave. Or writing longhand. Or traveling for research. Or doing yoga. Because none of our stories are the same. Some authors are great planners and plotters. Some know what they will write long before they ever begin, while I am a stumbler and a wanderer, often blind to my own motivations, ignorant about what pulls me along, clueless about what lights me up. I am a writer whose strength is not foresight, but intuition, a quality that this time—­thankfully, unexpectedly—­guided me just where I needed to go.

1. Gus is the voice that guides you through Life Drawing. She’s in charge of how this story is told, including how you hear about her own missteps and failings. How do you think she feels about having had an extramarital affair? She obviously regrets hurting Owen, but does she seem to regret what she did, or just that she told him? Does her attitude toward that change over the course of the book?

2. Alison seems to hold an almost mystical power over Gus from the moment of her arrival. What are some of the things that make Gus so susceptible to the lure of a new friend—­and not just a friend, but someone to whom she tells her most intimate secrets? Gus has a history of disloyalty. Is it fair to say that she’s being disloyal to Owen again by telling Alison so much, or is it understandable that Gus would need a confidante?

3. How would you describe the condition of Owen and Gus’s marriage at the point of Alison’s arrival? What do you think would have happened to them if they’d just gone on living in solitude? Were the resentments bound to bubble up without a third person involved, or did they seem settled into a good life? If there were problems that were bound to come up, what were some warning signs?

4. Why do you think the “boys in the walls” ignite Gus’s creativity? Why does discovering the accounts of their fates and the photographs she finds feel so instantly meaningful to her?

5. Because Gus has neither a mother nor a child, everything about motherhood is filtered through her guesses at what it might be like—­from both sides. How does this lack of personal experience play out in the story? How does it affect her feelings toward Alison? Nora? Laine?

6. As Gus’s father, Sam, loses his memory, Gus seems to feel torn about the loss. There are clearly upsetting aspects, but she also describes the two of them as growing closer. Why do you think this is?

7. How do you feel about Nora? Is she scheming and selfish, or just very young; or maybe a combination of all? Gus herself describes two possibilities: forgiving her for being naïve and just one part of a complex tragedy, and blaming her for everything coming apart. Where do you think she falls on the line between the two?

8. How do Gus’s feelings about Laine change in the course of Laine’s visit and her critique of Gus’s work, and also afterward? What does that visit give Gus beyond a new view of her paintings? And do you think Owen’s reaction is fair, or is it time for him to let up a little bit?

9. Gus is surprised by the lengths to which Alison goes because she’s worried about Nora, and also by how much Alison has confided in her daughter. As Gus becomes furious over these things, what else may be fueling her anger besides the immediate impact? She seems so often to be jealous of that mother-­daughter bond. Is that jealousy present all the way through the story, or do other angers replace it entirely?

10. What do you think Ida’s role is in the story? Why was Gus so afraid of her judgment back when she was painting the shop? What or whom does Ida represent to her?

11. Do you believe Owen in his account of what has gone on between him and Nora? Gus only has his word that there was no sexual relationship, so that’s all the reader has too. Would he have told her if there were? Do you believe that she really helped him write? Could he have said that as payback to Gus, or does that seem out of character for him?

12. Toward the end, Owen describes their marriage as a “universe.” What do you think that means? Does that seem like a good way to describe marriages in general, or is it something more specific about the two of them?

13. Why do you think Gus has so much difficulty painting human beings? Are there any explanations to why she lacks “the life drawing gene” as she calls it? Do you think she has any theories about why that may be?

14. What do you suppose happens in Gus’s life a year after the end of this book? Two years? Can you imagine her staying out in the country? Moving back into the city? Falling in love? So much in Life Drawing is about the past. What do you suppose the future holds?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 15, 2014

    This is a nail-biter of a portrait of a marriage. So few novels

    This is a nail-biter of a portrait of a marriage. So few novels nail the complexity of long-term, middle-age relationships, and this was my favorite since Crossing to Safety. One of many observant lines: “There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one that you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.” It's a twist on the classic a-stranger-comes-to-town story: an artistic, middle-aged couple, newly living in the Pennsylvania countryside to heal a rift in their marriage, and a new neighbor moves in next door. Friendships, confidences, alliances. And from there the screamingly quiet drama begins, and becomes not so quiet at all.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 9, 2014

    Augusta and Owen seem to live in quit solitude in the country.


    Augusta and Owen seem to live in quit solitude in the country. Previously being city people it is hard to imagine what would drag an
    artist and a writer out of their beloved city away from all their friends and into the country. Something big! That's What. All seems to be well
     on the surface but underneath there is a hot mess that neither one of them seems to want to talk about let alone deal with it to get the
    closure their relationship so obviously needs.But life always get interrupted and this interruption is in the form of a neighbor.
    So at first I thought that either Augusta or Owen would have an affair with this woman and this would be the conflict but I was wrong
    and the way it goes down hill for all of them is a slippery slope that none of them will ever recover from. Black really opens up the raw
    emotions of a marriage or coupling. She also focuses on decisions and consequences that we all face but she shows how our
    decisions can have such a huge impact on others and can be life altering. Deep and raw. I truly enjoyed this book even though there
    were a few times I rolled my eyes. Our emotions, our decisions, and the people in our lives can make life or break it. This book is what
    literary fiction is all about!

    Discover: Love, Betrayal, and Grief.
    4 stars means this to me: A great read. Memorable and highly entertaining. Recommended, but for whatever reason, not the all
    consuming experience that I feel characterizes a five star book. Maybe one or two minor issues.  

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2014

    Great stor

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. This was one of the best books I have read this year.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 15, 2014

    Stirred into "Life Drawing"¿a fusion so difficult to a

    Stirred into "Life Drawing"—a fusion so difficult to achieve—is the ‘gotta know’ and purely glorious prose. It is that stunningly simple writing that makes for the best read. An example:
    “The basil I am eyeing with such irritation is rampant. The air smells of it and of lavender. Owen and I are enthusiastic, ignorant gardeners. We are inadequately attentive. We are perpetually amazed. We are innocents to nature, stupefied by its every trick. Even as I am annoyed with myself for letting the basil go to seed, I am also in awe of it. Magic! These beings that continue to grow, that know what to do next, and next, and next.”

    For me, the finest reading experience opens up a world I knew existed, but hadn’t managed to adequately frame; it makes me anxious, so very anxious, of the character’s fate, that me stomach clenches. A book which impels me forward, because I must know what will happen, so much that I race to finish it.
    And mourn when it’s done.
    And sometimes bend over in grief for what these characters—my new family for that period of immersion—are experiencing.
    Robin Black has written that book. "Life Drawing."

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2014

    This is one of the best books I've read in a long time.

    This is one of the best books I've read in a long time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 21, 2014

    Black¿s novel is an incredibly imagined trip inside the mind of

    Black’s novel is an incredibly imagined trip inside the mind of a woman embroiled in complex relationships with lovers and others.  Life Drawing’s protagonist is intimately revealed and always inches away from being exposed as somewhat less than honest in the telling of her story.  The husband’s death is declared on page one, yet Black cleverly keeps us just enough in the dark that the reader questions the wife’s honesty throughout the tale. Enticing and fulfilling, Life Drawing details the complex repercussions of being a social animal.  A great read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2014

    Good, not great.  I found Gus to be a thoroughly unsympathetic c

    Good, not great.  I found Gus to be a thoroughly unsympathetic character, too  embroiled in her own selfish needs and fantasies.  

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 4, 2014

    Sounds like a great story and the review has drawn me to read t

    Sounds like a great story and the review has drawn me to read the whole book. Guess that is why it has 5 stars ¿ No issues for me. Can't wait.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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