Life Drawing

Life Drawing

4.3 12
by Robin Black
     
 

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NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR

“Taut, elegant . . . Black is a writer of great wisdom.”—Claire Messud, The Guardian (UK)

Augusta Edelman—Gus to her friends—is a painter, a wife, and not always the best judge of her own choices—one of them bad enough that she and her husband, Owen,

Overview

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR

“Taut, elegant . . . Black is a writer of great wisdom.”—Claire Messud, The Guardian (UK)

Augusta Edelman—Gus to her friends—is a painter, a wife, and not always the best judge of her own choices—one of them bad enough that she and her husband, Owen, have fled their longtime city home and its reminders of troubling events. Now, three years into their secluded country life, Gus works daily on the marriage she nearly lost, discovers new inspiration for her art, and contemplates the mysteries of a childhood tragedy. But this quiet, healing rhythm is forever shattered one hot July day when a stranger moves into the abandoned house next door and crosses more boundaries than just those between their lands. A fierce, honest, and moving portrait of a woman grappling with her fate, Life Drawing is a debut novel as beautiful and unsparing as the human heart.
 
Praise for Life Drawing
 
“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.”O: The Oprah Magazine
 
“Truly brilliant . . . [Black] is that rare writer whose gift for prose is matched by her mastery of the other elements that make a great novel. . . . [Her] psychological prowess and incisive observations lend an edge even to seemingly straightforward scenes.”—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

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)
 
“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

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400068562
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/15/2014
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
6.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

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.”

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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Life Drawing: A Novel 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
BostonWriter More than 1 year ago
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.
ABookishGirlBlog More than 1 year ago
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.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. This was one of the best books I have read this year.
constantreaderRM More than 1 year ago
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."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time.
susanibird More than 1 year ago
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.
Chowbell 10 days ago
This is a beautifully written book and a compelling story. which would be a great read for a book discussion group. I highly recommend it. I could not put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to like this book, but I struggled to even finish it. Very boring and depressing. Don't waste your time or money unless you are a glutton for punishment.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed reading. Fell in love with the characters, felt like I was living in their lives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good, not great.  I found Gus to be a thoroughly unsympathetic character, too  embroiled in her own selfish needs and fantasies.  
Maggie0624 More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago