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Fifteen-year-old Nina and her family are struggling to hold things together in the wake of the accidental death of her four-year-old brother several years earlier. Seeking refuge in her art, Nina's mother has painted a series of nude portraits of her remaining living child. As these haunting images go public, Nina is forced to deal with her burgeoning sexuality in front of a large and critical audience. With tension in the family reaching a breaking point, the portrait entitled Nina: Adolescence provokes a ...
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Fifteen-year-old Nina and her family are struggling to hold things together in the wake of the accidental death of her four-year-old brother several years earlier. Seeking refuge in her art, Nina's mother has painted a series of nude portraits of her remaining living child. As these haunting images go public, Nina is forced to deal with her burgeoning sexuality in front of a large and critical audience. With tension in the family reaching a breaking point, the portrait entitled Nina: Adolescence provokes a situation that will either be the engine of Nina's destruction-or the catalyst that enables her to finally surmount tragedy.
In this mesmerizing first novel, Amy Hassinger captures the cruelties and passions of adolescence with eloquence, tenderness, and a fearless sensuality. In Nina, she has created an unforgettable character-and launched a stunning career.
Then Marian is offered the chance to exhibit her work, and much that has been simmering beneath the surface in the family comes to a boil. Nina's mother and father disagree about whether the nudes should be shown, let alone sold, but over her father's objections, the show goes forward. The paintings-particularly the one entitled Nina: Adolescence-will attract a kind of attention that will ultimately be both destructive, and healing.
This mesmerizing debut novel examines the central issues of adolescence-sexuality and identity-as well as raises questions about the limits of artistic freedom, and the tenuous balance between serving oneself and serving the other in intimate relationships.
From the Author:
How did the novel get its start?
I have always been fascinated by the creative process, which is probably why Marian is an artist, and Nina is a dancer and budding choreographer. Creativity and health are linked in my mind, as are creativity and sexuality. As I explored Nina's character, it became clear that the book was going to be largely about her adolescence, and more specifically about her development as both a sexual and creative being. At first, I planned to write the book in an omniscient point of view, with both Marian's and Nina's minds being the primary lenses of the novel. But a teacher encouraged me to focus the point of view, which turned out to be excellent advice. I had to throw out almost 400 pages, but that's also when the idea emerged of a painting entitled Nina: Adolescence.
What were your inspirations for the story?
I had come across a Robert Mitchell photograph years earlier, which was probably the main inspiration for the painting in the novel. His photograph is a black and white image of a girl-fully clothed, I should add, in a sweatshirt and pinstriped pants-standing in front of an abandoned cedar-shingled barn in Maine. The girl looks wise, though she's probably only eight or nine years old, and the abandoned barn evokes a somber, wistful mood. Marian's painting of Nina also features an abandoned house, though many of the rest of the elements are different. I think I was also drawing on some of Sally Mann's work-beautiful pictures of her children, some of which are nudes in rustic settings. Paintings by Lucien Freud and Balthus and Hal Reddicliffe sharpened my vision. All of those images-including work by other artists as well as some of my own unformed ideas about art-were rattling around in my head as I worked on the book.
How were you able to adopt the point of view of a fifteen-year-old girl?
Like many people, my own adolescent experience is still fairly fresh in my mind: the intense fascination with desire, accompanied by the terror associated with it...the obsession with my own physicality...the seemingly ever-present threat of humiliating oneself...teenagers feel things so intensely. I tried to recall that intensity of feeling as I was writing-and it came pretty willingly once called on.
I think it's a common experience among teenage girls to want to be desirable but at the same time to be alienated by desire, both their own and the desire that others may have for them. Some girls learn quickly that they can get a lot of attention by dressing provocatively, for example, but often don't understand or have any interest in sex. This is why Nina is ambivalent about her mother's pictures-she likes the attention on one level, but is also mortified and frightened by it. Like Leo, she sees her own sexuality emerging in the paintings before she's even aware of it herself.
Do you think the emergence of sexuality in adolescents is universally experienced in a dark or frightening way?
Ideally, no. Wouldn't it be great if we could all be completely matter of fact about it? But sex is so tied up with shoulds and shouldn'ts, with deeply held religious and cultural beliefs, with conflicting pressures from parents and peers, not to mention the complex emotional exchange that goes on between the two people involved. It's often, at the very best, a mixed experience for most young adults. Perhaps it's a little easier for boys, on the whole, since becoming sexual doesn't carry as many taboos as it does for girls.
Did you know how this novel would end at the time you began writing it?
No-I had no idea where it was going, which was terrifying. In fact, the ending completely snuck up on me in my first draft. I began the final sentence thinking it was simply the next sentence, and then after I wrote it, I realized it was the end.
It's been said that, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." How do you feel about the ability of one art form to illuminate another? For example, you write both about painting and dancing in this novel-was it as impossible a task as the quote suggests?
That's a great saying; it makes perfect sense. I have never been happy with any of my own attempts at writing about music for that very reason. Writing about painting is a little easier, though of course it's impossible to fully capture a painting in writing, just as it is impossible to capture any work of art in any way except by experiencing it directly. But both writing and painting are essentially visual forms. As a writer, you're usually describing the visual: what you see your characters doing in your imagination. Of course, any beginning creative writing course will emphasize using all of the senses in your writing, but I think on the whole that the sense most basic to both writing and painting is vision.
Writing about Nina's choreography was similar to writing about music. The dance she choreographs begins amorphously, as a mood, and then transforms into movement. I made an effort to give some of the basic movements of the dance-rolling, lifting, transference of weight-but then moved back into describing its mood. Describing each motion would have gotten too cumbersome.
Your story is set in the northeastern United States in the last few decades of the 20th century. Do you feel like it's a story that is specific to that place and time, or a story that is somehow timeless?
I do think it's specific; I'm not sure that teenage girls growing up in rural America in the 1930s experienced the same types of pressures as many teenage girls growing up in late 20th century urban and suburban America did, although I can't be sure. Certainly they weren't inundated by television and electronic images like we are today, which have an inordinate amount of influence on our behavior.
There are some timeless elements to the story, I believe: particularly the effect of a child's death on a family and the struggle to emerge from that grief into a more livable place. And Nina's struggle for self-definition is a universal adolescent experience-though adolescence itself is arguably a twentieth century, western, developed-country phenomenon.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on my next novel, which is set primarily in southern France and is based on a true story of a priest who became mysteriously wealthy around the turn of the nineteenth century and has since inspired scores of treasure-seekers and volumes of speculative writing about the source of his wealth, some of it very esoteric. I'm writing the story from the point of view of his housekeeper, who was his close friend and possibly his lover.
Q> Mothers are some of the most mythologized beings in our culture. We have strict ideas about what makes a mother a "good" mother. According to your own ideas, how does Marian fare as a mother? How do you feel about her? Why? Were she a man, would you feel the same way?
Q> Conversely, how do you feel about Henry as a father? Do you believe he should have acted differently?
Q> How much do the paintings affect Nina's frame of mind? How much do you fault the event of Jonas' drowning, and the response of her parents to his death? What other factors influence her?
Q> Henry objects to Marian's paintings of Nina because he feels they are too sexually provocative, too revealing. Is his objection valid? Where is the line between art and pornography? Are there limits to artistic freedom?
Q> How does the fact that Nina is Marian's daughter interact with and perhaps interfere with the paintings? Do you think Marian could have painted the same sort of paintings of a girl who was not her daughter?
Q> What role does Charles Bouvier play in the novel? How do his comments about the painting "Nina: Adolescence" affect Nina? Marian? Henry?
Q> Is Marian telling the truth when she says she is no longer in contact with Leo? Do you feel she has changed by the end of the book? How?
Q> How do you take Leo's final letter to Nina? Is it sincere?
Q> Do you feel that there is anything positive about Nina's relationship with Leo?
10. Where is Nina headed as the book ends? Who do you think she'll become?
Posted February 21, 2007
If you're thinking about reading this ask yourself: 1. Do I want to read something frivolous? 2. Do I want a conventional happy ending? 3. Do I want to stay within my comfort zone? * if you answer yes to those questions, this is not the book for you. However, if you want to read a gripping novel that is well written and alive with emotion, this is the book for you.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 17, 2005