The Handyman: A Novel [NOOK Book]

Overview

With this brilliant novel about the surprises of destiny and the origins of fame, the critically acclaimed author of Golden Days ("Extraordinary . . . a very, very important book"-Los Angeles Times Book Review) and Making History ("Radiant . . . exciting and imaginative"-Cleveland Plain Dealer) firmly establishes her place as one of the preeminent chroniclers of our times.
    
The Handyman is the story of Bob Hampton, an ...
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The Handyman: A Novel

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Overview

With this brilliant novel about the surprises of destiny and the origins of fame, the critically acclaimed author of Golden Days ("Extraordinary . . . a very, very important book"-Los Angeles Times Book Review) and Making History ("Radiant . . . exciting and imaginative"-Cleveland Plain Dealer) firmly establishes her place as one of the preeminent chroniclers of our times.
    
The Handyman is the story of Bob Hampton, an aspiring young painter who has had to face the humbling fact that he doesn't know what to paint.  And how are you supposed to be an artist in this world if you don't have a vision? Bob trades in his artist's palette for a minivan full of house paints, hammers, and nails, and sets about earning a little cash as a handyman.
    
Although he turns out to be very bad at fixing the things he's hired to fix, Bob demonstrates quite a knack for fixing the lives of the people around him. In the midst of his jerry-built repairs and inspired home improvements, Bob meets an extraordinary cast of characters--rendered in all their delightful eccentricity and human frailty as only Carolyn See can-each of whom shows Bob the true scope of his own remarkable talent. There's Angela Landry, a housewife with far too much time on her hands, a sexpot of a stepdaughter, and a son in need of  attention; Jamie Walker, whose allergy-prone and ADD-afflicted children keep a menagerie of scaly pets that far exceed Jamie's managerial skills; Valerie LeClerc, older, sadder, and certainly wiser than Bob; and Hank and Ben, who leave a narrow-minded Midwest only to find unremitting illness and isolation in the California of their dreams.
    
Replete with stunning images and all of Carolyn See's trademark humor and wisdom, The Handyman depicts the countless ways in which our lives are intertwined and the profound effects we can have on one another. It is the kind of surprising and miraculously uplifting novel we have come to expect from the woman Diane Johnson has called "one of our most important writers."


From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man

Meet Bob Hampton. UCLA graduate in his late 20s, lean and muscular, a skilled painter but perhaps not an especially talented one, he's got one mission: to fly to Paris and enroll in art school at the École des Beaux Arts. To become a great artist, he has to study the masters, doesn't he? To make his mark on the art world, he must experience firsthand dramatic subjects worthy of painting, no? Indeed, to discover his own vision he must first absorb the world-views of the Matisses and Da Vincis who came before him, right? If the only answer to these questions is yes, then Bob is on a one-way collision with his dreams.

Convinced that in Paris he will finally fulfill the command his last UCLA art teacher gave him -- "You must be born again, Mr. Hampton" -- Bob has packed, sold, or exchanged all his worldly possessions. But it's more than money he'll lose if he goes bust on the Left Bank -- it's the entire architecture of his life. Pity the central character of any story with hopes that large and unwieldy. Paris fast drains Bob of his ambition, and he retreats as hastily as he arrived. For in Paris the young artists aspire to study in California, and no one is where he thinks he should be. It's this state of confused desire that opens Carolyn See's latest novel, The Handyman, and sets the stage for a bittersweet journey that takes Bob inward to the true flame of his artistic longing and back out into the world of color and people and geography.

As much a statement on aesthetic principle as a novel of self-exploration, The Handyman sets Bob on the unexplored path toward artistic expression and off the traveled route of following in the masters' well-trod footsteps. The Handyman is a novelist's manifesto on the nature of art and how each writer must work for and trust the tale she's meant to tell, each painter realize and give himself over to the scene he's individually meant to create. Along the way toward learning this lesson, Bob meets a cast of idiosyncratic characters alive with problems and heartaches worse than his own.

Filled with See's trademark wit and the piercing revelations discovered within the everyday that distinguished her memoir, Making History, from so many forgettable others, The Handyman is a lesson in inspiration and a pure joy to read.

Returned from Paris and at loose ends, Bob crashes in a house full of graduate students, the only other souls more lost than he, and sets out on a summer of in-between time. He'll enroll back at the Otis School of Design in the fall and in the meantime make do as a handyman. Like many an aspiring artist or writer, Bob is figuring out that balance between art and paying the rent, between angst-ridden time with the brush and palette and walks out in the city, where the teeming masses know nothing of one man's private obsession. What else can Bob really expect when he puts himself to work with flyers advertising "WHATEVER'S WRONG I CAN FIX IT!" Part of the charm of See's conceit here is that there's actually very little that Bob can fix. Handed a broken lamp by a beautiful young mother anxious to please her developmentally slow son with its repair, Bob dashes out on his lunch break to pay a real repairman to patch it up. After rewiring a dryer, no one is more surprised than Bob when his slapdash job manages to whirl the machine back to life. It's the wrongs that don't require mechanical fixing that Bob is really handy with.

Meandering through the vast neighborhoods of L.A. on calls from people as disparate as they are desperate, Bob steps through the door of the world and finds his home. There's the Landrys, who want him to paint and landscape their pool. Diligent at his work, trying out every color of blue he can mix, affable but sensitive Bob can't help but notice that it's more than the pool that needs attention. Mr. Landry is seldom home -- and when he is, he ignores his sexpot daughter and brooding, gorgeous wife. Bob manages to feed both of them the attention they're starved for even as he answers the call to Jamie, mother of two unmanageable children and their menagerie of bizarre animals. They, too, are neglected by a workaholic father, and Bob is the answer to their domestic prayers. Then there's Hank and Ben, teenaged refugees from the stultifying Midwest for whom L.A. was a dream of freedom short-lived. When Bob answers their call, Ben is so ill that Bob can barely stand to be in his sickroom with him. Hank has been brave to stay with Ben at all, and it's up to Bob to pull it all together. Doing laundry, scouring floors, feeding neglected pets, hosing down mattresses, and setting out the fragile, ailing people of the back side of L.A. into the sun of their own backyards, Bob is the handyman who fixes hearts and homes.

With her light touch, See carves a compelling march toward destiny out of a meandering summer when Bob realizes that being a handyman means filling in where others, namely men, have abandoned their duty. In doing so, he touches flesh to flesh, soul to soul with subjects worth paying attention to, worth learning by heart, literally, in order to paint. As a gift for his bedside, he draws Ben in a throne, magisterial and serene. To propose to the woman he finally falls for, he paints a story of their falling in love, his dusky figure on his knees before her flowing gown. In all of his taking care and mental recording of the people outside his own numbed and sorrowful past, Bob opens his aesthetic sensibility to light and space and color. The reader of The Handyman experiences no less.

—Elizabeth Haas

Elizabeth Gleick
With this compelling work, one that requires some suspension of disbelief, See evokes an L.A. rarely seen: a place where unexpected beauty blossoms in the margins.
Time Magazine
Nick Meyer
See's writing is, as befits the subject, masterly, almost painterly, and colors the whole work.
New York Magazine
People Magazine
...[O]ffers a satisfying take on the mysterious and unpredictable ways that real lfie can be turned into art.
Ron Charles
See has a good ear for witty dialogue, and she knows how to throw quirky characters together for comic effect...
The Christian Science Monitor
From The Critics
...[A] highly enjoyable novel about the restorative and instructional powers of unprovoked generosity, as well as what it means to be and become an artist.
Library Journal
Bob Hampton's at loose ends in the hot Los Angeles summer of 1996. While pondering art school in L.A., he earns his living as a handyman — he'll do anything, much of it involving women of all ages. He meets charming Old World widows, shell-shocked about-to-be divorcees, randy teenagers, militant feminists — but he also becomes involved in the messy lives of single unattached men and lost children. Everyone he touches ends up better or happier for the experience. Making a difference in the lives of others, however, doesn't do much for his own problem — he's unable to come up with anything original or noteworthy in his art. Slowly, though, the new pattern of his life becomes interwoven with his creative side. Reaching out to life's losers, he finds himself creating original and complex works. See (Making History) has written a feel-good novel reminiscent of the best work of Allison Lurie with a dollop of AnneTyler. -- Jo Manning, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida
David Willis McCullough
...Carolyn See has breathed genuine life into her narrator....See...succeeds at creating an artist who is neither a mystic nor a monster, but a genial guy next door with a job to do...
The New York Times Book Review
Megan Harlan
...[E]xplores the mysterious ways in which art, love, and identity are forged...a sparkling entertainment....irresistible.
Entertainment Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
An enchanting story by the ever-adventurous See (Making History) depicts an aspiring painter-turned-handyman who discovers "the infinite within the quotidian." The framing device — a Guggenheim application dated August 15, 2027, and rendered in flawless grant-speak-informs us up-front that Robert Hampton will become "the preeminent international artist of the New Century" and that a group known as "Los Testigos" (witnesses) received both artworks and spiritual sustenance from him during his formative period. But when 28-year-old Bob's dejected first-person narrative begins in May 1996, he's just another drifting Los Angeleno, convinced he will never be a painter, sharing a dingy house with three other disconnected souls, marking time until the fall. Meanwhile, his flyers boasting "WHATEVER'S WRONG I CAN FIX IT!" bring calls from various people, some of whom don't need a handyman so much as a rescue squad. Among the more desperate cases: a recently transplanted gay midwesterner unable to cope with his AIDS-stricken teenage lover, and two women so overwhelmed by bad marriages that they can care neither for their children nor their houses, which stink from ankle-deep dirty dishes and clothes. The neglected wife of a sports agent, her sexy stepdaughter, and a 60ish widow are more capable, if almost as needy. Over the course of a single summer, Bob does laundry, scours bathrooms, sorts papers, beds down with several customers, connects his roommates with others, and finds his identity as an artist in the casual pieces he creates to cheer up his unhappy clientele.

The story may sound schematic in summary, especially since most of the characters can be matched with a "Testigo"from the grant application, but See's customary wit and sharp eye for the particulars of American life at the turn of the century flesh out the whole with human complexity. Undertones of spiritual as well as creative awakening are perfectly calibrated to enrich the text without weighing it down. An ambitious exploration of artistic inspiration that could have been unbearably pretentious but that instead, thanks to Bob's down-to-earth voice and the author's delicate touch, proves magical. . .

From the Publisher
"The Handyman proves once again that Carolyn See is one of this generation's most talented and versatile writers."
--FANNIE FLAGG

"IRRESISTIBLE . . . A SPARKLING ENTERTAINMENT."
--Entertainment Weekly

"BEGUILING, CHARMING, WITTY, INSPIRING--Carolyn See's novel The Handyman is so wonderful in so many ways that it's going to seem as if her mother wrote every review for it. Twenty-eight-year-old Bob Hampton is a struggling artist who is panicking at the possibility that he will never find his authentic 'voice.' After a failed (and endearing) trip to Paris, Bob returns to his home in Los Angeles and decides to spend the summer working as a handyman before giving art school one more try. What he becomes, of course, is a handyman of the heart."
--The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"[AN] INVENTIVE AND ENERGETIC STORY . . . See offers a satisfying take on the mysterious and unpredictable ways that real life can be turned into art."
--People

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307766243
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/14/2011
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,095,604
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Carolyn See is the author of nine books. She is the Friday-morning reviewer for The Washington Post, and she has been on the boards of the National Book Critics Circle and PEN/West International. She has won both Guggenheim and Getty fellowships and currently teaches English at UCLA. She lives in Pacific Palisades, California.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt

IN MAY OF 1996 I FLEW FROM LOS ANGELES TO PARIS, to get settled in the city before I enrolled in the fall semester of the École des Beaux-Arts. I was twenty-eight years old; I had a bachelor's degree in Fine Arts from UCLA and ten thousand dollars in traveler's checks. I'd spent one summer in Paris before, when I was eighteen. I'd been out of school for five years, "finding myself"--thinking I might be an artist--but that search had turned up nothing. In Paris, at least, I had the idea that I could see what others had done, and what I might do. I was scared shitless.

My plane landed at Orly at quarter of six on a cold Tuesday morning. I had a long wait for my luggage, since I'd brought enough in theory to live for a year, and I had a hard and embarrassing discussion with a cab driver when I finally got out of the airport. I'd expected to feel great, but the jet lag--maybe--kept me from being happy as the taxi drove through suburbs and grimy fog. I had to keep reminding myself that a lot of other artists had come to this city. All of them must have had a first day, and that day had to have been lonesome.

I kept waiting for the city to turn into something beautiful, but I had a fair wait. After about forty minutes, we came in sight of the river, and yes, everything was as great as everyone said. I gave the driver the address of the Hôtel du Danube on the rue Jacob, on the Left Bank. It was too expensive for me but I'd allowed myself a week there, since it was close to the École, the Musée d'Orsay, the Louvre, and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris. I think I would have to say that everything in me at that time pointed in one direction, to find out what it meant to be a fine artist, to put my life on the line for art, to combine everything I'd learned and everything I felt and then distill that into paintings. It hadn't happened in LA--"the art scene" in LA was crap-but if it were going to happen anywhere, it would happen here. In two years I'd be thirty, and then the whole thing would be ridiculous.

The cab pulled up to the Hôtel du Danube at ten in the morning, and right away I saw I'd made a mistake. The lobby was dark and glossy and touristy, and a clerk my age gave me a chickenshit stare. I asked for their smallest room and I got it-a dark little cubicle toward the back with a single bed, a shorted-out television, an armoire set at an angle on the sloping floor, and wallpaper that went on all the way across the ceiling-brown cabbage roses on a tan background. The one small window looked out on a roof made of corrugated tin.

I felt lousy, but, again, I put that down to jet lag.

After I washed my hands and face I went out for a walk. I knew a run would make me feel better, but I thought I should know where I was running before I suited up and started.

I walked along the rue Jacob to the rue des Saints-Pères and turned up toward the Seine. The sun was out by now. Things looked the way I expected, but not the way I expected. The river was amazing. I could look across it to the Louvre and that was amazing too, more than I could register, more than I could take in. That so many people, so long ago, had been so dedicated to beauty! I thought of LA, weeds sprouting from the sidewalks and retaining walls bulging with dirt from the last earthquake and all the stucco bungalows on the sides of all the hills and how they faded into that beige background of dead ryegrass. I thought of Salvadorean women on Western Avenue with little kids in strollers and more kids strapped to their backs. Everything I remembered seemed monochromatic and sad.

I came back from the river, walking in the direction of the hotel. I thought I should see Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and the famous cafés on the boulevard Saint-Germain. I was getting hungry. Take it a step at a time, I thought. A thousand people, a thousand thousand people have done what you're doing. They got through it. So you can get through it. Half the people around me were French, but most of the other half were American-hunched together on sidewalks, poring over guidebooks and maps. The French pushed past them. The shops had windows filled with high-class tourist junk-etchings cut out of books and framed, tarnished jewelry you could pick up in LA in thrift shops for ten bucks. And stuff only a moron might want-life-sized stuffed leather pigs.

Saint-Germain-des-Prés was great. Old, old, a mass going on at the far end, groups of Parisians and tourists wandering around in the dark. It calmed me down. I was facing a depressing fact, the fact that I didn't want to go into a place by myself for lunch. I had to remind myself that I was an American, well educated, able-bodied, with enough money to last a while. Picasso had done it (not that he was American). Hemingway could do it. (But thinking of myself at the Ritz Bar in a trench coat might have made me laugh, if I could laugh.)


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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First Chapter

Chapter One


In May of 1996 I flew to Paris from Los Angeles, to get settled in the city before I enrolled in the fall semester of the École des Beaux-Arts. I was twenty-eight years old; I had a bachelor's degree in Fine Arts from UCLA and ten thousand dollars in traveler's checks. I'd spent one summer in Paris before, when I was eighteen. I'd been out of school for five years, "finding myself"--thinking I might be an artist--but that search had turned up nothing. In Paris, at least, I had the idea that I could see what others had done, and what I might do. I was scared shitless.

    My plane landed at Orly at quarter of six on a cold Tuesday morning. I had a long wait for my luggage, since I'd brought enough in theory to live for a year, and I had a hard and embarrassing discussion with a cab driver when I finally got out of the airport. I'd expected to feel great, but the jet lag--maybe--kept me from being happy as the taxi drove through suburbs and grimy fog. I had to keep reminding myself that a lot of other artists had come to this city. All of them must have had a first day, and that day had to have been lonesome.

    I kept waiting for the city to turn into something beautiful, but I had a fair wait. After about forty minutes, we came in sight of the river, and yes, everything was as great as everyone said. I gave the driver the address of the Hôtel du Danube on the rue Jacob, on the Left Bank. It was too expensive for me but I'd allowed myself a week there, since it was close to the École, the Musée d'Orsay, the Louvre, and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris. I think I would have to say that everything in me at that time pointed in one direction, to find out what it meant to be a fine artist, to put my life on the line for art, to combine everything I'd learned and everything I felt and then distill that into paintings. It hadn't happened in LA--"the art scene" in LA was crap--but if it were going to happen anywhere, it would happen here. In two years I'd be thirty, and then the whole thing would be ridiculous.

    The cab pulled up to the Hôtel du Danube at ten in the morning, and right away I saw I'd made a mistake. The lobby was dark and glossy and touristy, and a clerk my age gave me a chickenshit stare. I asked for their smallest room and I got it--a dark little cubicle the back with a single bed, a shorted-out television, an armoire set at an angle on the sloping floor, and wallpaper that went on all the way across the ceiling--brown cabbage roses on a tan background. The one small window looked out on a roof made of corrugated tin.

    I felt lousy, but, again, I put that down to jet lag.

    After I washed my hands and face I went out for a walk. I knew a run would make me feel better, but I thought I should know where I was running before I suited up and started.

    I walked along the rue Jacob to the rue des Saints-Pères and turned up toward the Seine. The sun was out by now. Things looked the way I expected, but not the way I expected. The river was amazing. I could look across it to the Louvre and that was amazing too, more than I could register, more than I could take in. That so many people, so long ago, had been so dedicated to beauty! I thought of LA, weeds sprouting from the sidewalks and retaining walls bulging with dirt from the last earthquake and all the stucco bungalows on the sides of all the hills and how they faded into that beige background of dead ryegrass. I thought of Salvadorean women on Western Avenue with little kids in strollers and more kids strapped to their backs. Everything I remembered seemed monochromatic and sad.

    I came back from the river, walking in the direction of the hotel. I thought I should see Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and the famous cafés on the boulevard Saint-Germain. I was getting hungry. Take it a step at a time, I thought. A thousand people, a thousand thousand people have done what you're doing. They got through it. So you can get through it.

    Half the people around me were French, but most of the other half were American--hunched together on sidewalks, poring over guidebooks and maps. The French pushed past them. The shops had windows filled with high-class tourist junk--etchings cut out of books and framed, tarnished jewelry you could pick up in LA in thrift shops for ten bucks. And stuff only a moron might want--life-sized stuffed leather pigs.

    Saint-Germain-des-Prés was great. Old, old, a mass going on at the far end, groups of Parisians and tourists wandering around in the dark. It calmed me down. I was facing a depressing fact, the fact that I didn't want to go into a place by myself for lunch. I had to remind myself that I was an American, well educated, able-bodied, with enough money to last a while. Picasso had done it (not that he was American). Hemingway could do it. (But thinking of myself at the Ritz Bar in a trench coat might have made me laugh, if I could laugh.)

    I came out of the church into the cobblestone yard and looked over to my left, at the café where Sartre and de Beauvoir had eaten lunch every day, if you could believe the guidebooks. I walked off on a diagonal to my right, toward a café that to my knowledge had no reputation at all. I sat down, ordered a Croque Monsieur, a salade des tomates, and a glass of red wine. Not quite what I expected, because there was a red-faced Irishman stuffing down a pair of fried eggs right next to me, telling a story about the computer company he worked for and how he'd just come in from Hong Kong the night before and how he'd be damned if he'd take the company house out in the banlieues, he'd live in the city or nowhere. On my other side, an American woman in a tight suit explained to someone who looked a lot like her mom that the French were terrific pill poppers, and that she, the daughter, was terribly disappointed that her mother had let herself go, because how could she introduce her to François, when she was looking like that?

    Everyone I saw had someone to talk to; everyone had a friend. Everyone had somewhere to go. Everyone had a plan.

    I paid my check and walked back to the hotel.

    My room faced away from the sun and smelled of mildew and smoke. I pulled off my clothes, got under the covers, and slept.

    When I woke up, it was the next morning. I ordered coffee and croissants and the maid brought them up. I sat in bed and ate and began to feel terrible. I got ready for the voices that would be rolling by soon, and sure enough, here they came: my dad, the redneck Texan carpenter who'd taken off when I was fifteen. "You're gonna be a what? An artist? Gimme a break, Bob!" My mom, sitting alone in her apartment down on Virgil: "That's fine for now, when you're still young, but pretty soon life is going to catch up with you. You can't go on living for yourself and expect to get away with it." Living for myself. Man, she was convinced of it.

    My old professors: "Hampton, pretty good. No, a B+ is a good grade, especially at UCLA. No, I'm not going to change it. No, I can't tell you what's `wrong' with the painting! It's just not A work. I know A work when I see it, and I don't see it here. No, I can't tell you what to do. I can tell you how to get a B, but no one can tell you how to get an A. If I could, we'd all be out on a yacht spending our millions."

    Or, "You'd make a fine teacher, Hampton."

    Or, "Disney needs animators. You work very rapidly and you're good with detail."

    Or, "Did you ever think of special effects? You've got a real craftsman's eye. We're living in the special-effects capital of the world, remember."

    But that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to knock them out. I wanted to knock their socks off. I wanted to change their lives through my art.

    Yeah, well.

    I got up and tools a shower and headed on out to sec the Musée d'Orsay.

    The day was cold and cloudy and getting inside the museum was a relief: it was warm in there, it was beautiful. The art was something. Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, his Olympia. How'd he get that light? Renoir's Dancing at the Moulin de la Galette. How'd he get that great light?

    I went through the museum, feeling worse and worse. The Renoirs--and Renoir wasn't even my favorite painter, for God's sake--made my stomach tie up. I stood for a long time in front of Danse à la ville and Danse à la campagne, and remembered what one asshole professor had said to me about what I could do to get an A. "You must be born again, Mr. Hampton! You must be born again!"

    What if I couldn't be born again? The two pairs of Renoir's dancers--in the city, in the country--showed me a million things in terms of light and technique and even social commentary, but something else in them made me feel like crying like a kid. Some people, somewhere, had been as happy as that.

    It didn't matter, because no one in this century painted like that anymore. I tried to remember, back in LA, Tony Berlant using nuts and bolts and metal in all his pieces, doing it for years now. Had Berlant been born again? Born again to what?

    I got out of there after a couple of hours and went into a place for lunch, big chunks of veal in a red-orange sauce. I paid too much for it. I went back to the hotel, waited for an hour, went out to a café, and started talking to a good-looking American guy who worked for a French computer firm. Everyone did, he said. Work in computers.

    "This is the best café in Paris, absolutely the best. Do you play squash? I make it a point to play three nights a week. Keep in shape. Have to. Going to the École? I have a friend who went there. Best education in France. Absolutely the best. Ever been married? Neither have I. That's the reason I stay over here. They can't get to me here. Not that there aren't plenty of women. Plenty of women! How long have you been here? A day! I've been here twelve years, off and on. Ex-pat for life, I imagine. Are you free for dinner? Like Greek food? I know an excellent place, right in this neighborhood. Best place in France. Here's Jean-Pierre. Jean-Pierre! Over here! Bob, here, will be going to the École. I told him it's the best ..."

    "Where are you from?" The Frenchman wore a bright red crewneck sweater and a look like he had a sewer right under his chin.

    "California. Los Angeles."

    "And you come here? That is bizarre. Everyone in France wants to go to Los Angeles. It is our Mecca. We all want to go there."

    "More wine, don't you think?" The American guy seemed pretty happy about things. "Greek food tonight?"

    The next morning I woke up with a hangover and a feeling of doom. This is it, man! You're here, this is it! Cut the crap, do what you're supposed to.

    I crossed the river and headed toward the Louvre. I knew it was banal or bourgeois, but all I really wanted to see was The Raft of the Medusa. Then I'd head out to the École, sign up early if I could, get a newspaper, look for a decent room or maybe even an apartment.

    Down in the museum's basement I started to sweat. I checked my jacket and backpack and headed up into wings of art, and more art. Too much of it! Renaissance stuff and pre-Renaissance stuff, and Saint Stephens and Saint Sebastians, and miles of virgins and angels. I recognized everything I'd ever studied and saw a thousand things I'd never seen before. I thought of all the men who'd had something like the same dream I had, to knock their socks off! To be born again! Would I ever get hung in a museum? Forget it, I couldn't even get a single show. I didn't even know what to paint.

    I heard myself panting for breath. I'd just go see The Raft and then head over to the École. I spent another couple of hours looking for the damn thing, if only to know for sure that other people sometimes felt like they were drowning, slipping off, losing it altogether. But The Raft of the Medusa was undergoing restoration "due to humidity." It stood behind a tall plywood partition. Just a few desperate arms poking up beyond the plywood. Help! We're drowning over here!

    The École des Beaux-Arts had very ornate and wonderful gates. They were closed tight and chained with a padlock. I didn't know why they were closed, but it wasn't going to matter. I pushed my face against the cold metal bars and looked in at the gray, rainy courtyard. Who had I been kidding?

    I went back to the hotel, dressed for a run, and headed west along the south side of the Seine, passing churches and buildings and more buildings. Not my home. Not my city. I got to the Tour Eiffel and turned to cross a bridge across the Seine. Was this the Trocadéro?--dozens of black guys my age were selling umbrellas to nobody, shivering in the cold.

    I ran back to the Hôtel du Danube, and went thudding through the lobby. I sat for a long time on the edge of the bed, then showered, took a nap, got up again at six, and went to the café where I'd met the American guy.

    He'd just come from his psychoanalyst. "I tell him my troubles in French, it's good for both of us. Do you want to have dinner? What about Czech food? Something Italian?"

    "Do you mind if I ask ... how old are you?"

    "Forty-two, why?"

    We ate Italian, "the best in France." I'd had better on the Santa Monica Promenade. We didn't get out of the restaurant until after midnight, and walked over to the Île de la Cité for ice cream. The city's lights twinkled in the freezing drizzle. We ordered double cones, pistachio and chocolate, and started back another way, and there, on a bridge that separated one part of the island from the other, I checked out maybe a couple of hundred students, most of them American. They sat right out in the rain, huddled up in duffle coats, smoking dope, having a great time. None of them looked up. They were all at least ten years younger than I was. I'd waited way too long. Who did I think I was kidding?

    So that was that. I flew back to LA. I'd enroll at the Otis Art Institute in September, brush up on design for a semester or two, get work in advertising, drafting, maybe special effects. Maybe get an MFA, finally, and teach. Figure out something to do for the summer. I'd think of something. On the plane back, I asked myself how I felt. My gone Texan dad gave me the answers: like a sick flea on a pig's butt. Lower than a toad. Wronger than a three-dollar bill.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Do you think Peter Laue is going to get his grant? Why or why not?

2. As a handyman, Bob also a successful therapist. Do you agree with this assessment? Discuss the significance of the title of this novel.

3. Have you had a Bob in your life? If not, would you like to meet someone like him?

4. What do you think would have happened to the characters in this novel if Bob had not entered their lives?

5. Who do you think is the inspiration for the Lilith paintings?

6. Did you figure out the identity of Se-ora Hampton before the end of the novel? Do you think she was the right woman for him?

7. Why do you think Kate does not realize that her Bob became Robert Hampton?

8. Unlike the very dysfunctional families we meet throughout the course of this novel, Angela and Bob seem to have created a family that really works. Why do you think this is so?

9. Which character would you be most interested in meeting and why? Would you be interested in spending time at the Hampton compound?

10. Beginning with Bob's mother, so many of the characters in this novel seem paralyzed by their loneliness. Discuss why it can be so difficult to connect with other people.

11. As Bob compares his own far-from-privileged upbringing with the affluence of the tumultuous Landry household, he reflects, "Rich kids tried to destroy themselves as a hobby. . . . We couldn't afford a catastrophe." What does he mean?

12. Why do you think the housewives in this novel feel so helpless and hopeless? Why do they have so much trouble with their primary job of creating and sustaining a home?

13. This novel explores the landscape of failed marriages. How doyou think people end up so trapped and unhappy? What brought these people together? What tore them apart?

14. "This wasn't how grown-up men were supposed to spend their time, but God, this was nice, " thought Bob as he was playing with Tod. Why does he think this? Discuss societal expectations regarding men and work and family.

15. Hank and Ben's dreams of Hollywood fall very short. What is it about Los Angeles that drew them to it? What is the source of its pull on the popular imagination?

16. What does Bob learn while he is cleaning out Professor Le Clerc's office and, essentially, throwing out his life's work?

17. How does Bob's understanding of his art change over the course of this novel? Do you think he would have been successful if he had stayed in Paris?

18. Many reviewers refer to this novel as a fairy tale. Do you agree?

19. Describe this novel in a sentence or two. Have your group share their summaries and discuss the range of opinions and impressions.

20. How was your reading group formed? Why do you think it has stayed together? Do you agree with Carolyn See's reflections on the phenomenon of the reading group?

21. Why did your group select this novel? Have you or will you read other works by Carolyn See?

22. How does this novel compare with other works your group has read? 23. What will you be reading next? Why?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 6 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 11, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Not worth reading

    My book club chose this book and I am very disappointed. I think the story is shallow and I do not care about any of the characters. I would read almost anything else.

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

    Posted August 21, 2007

    Disappointed

    The book was adequate but I was disappointed. The characters were just not very well developed and I didnt really care about any of them, including the main character. The dialogue was not that well written. There was no complexity, everyone was portrayed in a very simplistic way without any depth. Disappointing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2003

    Great!!!

    I first read Carolyn See's 'Making a Literary Life,' which was amazingly funny, honest, instructive, and touching. Then I picked up 'The Handyman' and was amazed by the story's flow, the characters, the humor, the emotional pull of the narrative. I even read it outloud to myself. The language is simple, but quite affective. Just marvelous.

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

    Posted July 4, 2000

    Wow!

    This is the best book I have read all year. It touched me, made me realize that our calling in life is not right under our noses but deep in our souls.

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

    Posted July 1, 2000

    Absolutely Brilliant!

    The Best book of 1999. Robert Hampton is a modern-day messiah.

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

    Posted November 5, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews

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