Clara Brodeur has spent her entire adult life pulling herself away from her famous mother, the renowned and controversial photographer Ruth Dunne, whose towering reputation rests on the unsettling nude portraits she took of her young daughter. At age eighteen, sick of her notoriety as “the girl in the pictures,” Clara fled New York City, settling and making her own family in small-town Maine. But years later, when Ruth reaches out from her deathbed, Clara suddenly finds herself drawn back to the past she thought she had escaped. From the beloved author of Family History and Slow Motion, a spellbinding novel that asks: How do we forgive those who failed to protect us?
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||7.96(w) x 6.46(h) x 0.56(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:April 10, 1962
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1987, M.F.A., 1989
Read an Excerpt
Chapter OneIt has been years since anyone has asked Clara if she’s Ruth Dunne’s daughter—you know, the girl in those pictures. But it has also been years—fourteen, precisely—since Clara has set foot in New York. The Upper West Side is a foreign country. The butcher, the shoe repair guy, even the Korean grocer have been replaced by multilevel gyms with juice bars, restaurants with one-syllable French names. Aix, Ouest. The deli where Clara and Robin used to stop on Saturday mornings—that deli is now some sort of boutique. The mannequin in the window is wearing blue jeans and a top no bigger than a cocktail napkin.This is not the neighborhood of her childhood, though she can still see bits and pieces if she looks hard enough. There’s the door to what was once Shakespeare & Co. She spent hours in that bookstore, hiding in the philosophy section, until one summer they gave her a job as a cashier. She lasted three days. Every other person, whether they were buying Wittgenstein or Updike, seemed to stare at her, as if trying to figure out why she looked familiar. So she quit.Shakespeare & Co. is now an Essentials Plus. The window displays shampoos, conditioners, a dozen varieties of magnifying mirrors. A small child bundled up in winter gear is riding a mechanical dinosaur next to the entrance, slowly moving up and down to a tinny version of the Flintstones theme song.Since the taxi dropped her off at the corner of Broadway and 79th Street, she has counted five wireless cellular stores, three manicure parlors, four real estate brokers. So this is now the Upper West Side: a place where people in cute outfits, their bellies full of steak-frites, talk on brand-new cell phones while getting their nails done on their way to look at new apartments.It is as if a brightly colored transparency has been placed over the neighborhood of Clara’s memory, which had been the color of a sparrow: tan, brown, gray as smudged newsprint. Now, everything seems large and neon. Even the little old Jewish men who used to sit on the benches in the center islands in the middle of Broadway, traffic whizzing around them in both directions—even they seem to be a thing of the past.She crosses Broadway quickly, the DON'T WALK sign already flashing. Outside the old Shakespeare & Co., a man has set up a tray table piled with books. A large cardboard sign announces PHILIP ROTH—SIGNED COPIES!!! Above the sign, a poster-sized photograph of Roth himself peers disapprovingly over the shoppers, the mothers pushing strollers, the teenagers checking their reflections in the windows of Essentials Plus.She has brought nothing with her. No change of clothes, no clean underwear, not even a toothbrush. She’s not staying, no way in hell. That’s what she told herself the whole flight down from Bangor. Ridiculous, of course. She’s going to have to stay at least overnight. Broadway is already cast in a wintry shadow, the sun low in the sky, setting across the Hudson River. Her body—the same body that spent her whole childhood in this place—knows the time by the way the light falls over the avenue. She doesn’t need to look at her watch. It’s four o’clock. That much—the way the sun rises and sets—has not changed.She’s been circling for an hour. Killing time. Down Columbus, across brownstone-lined side streets, over to West End Avenue with its stately gray buildings, heavy brass doors, uniformed doormen just inside.A man in an overcoat hurries by her. He glances at her as he passes, holding her gaze for a moment longer than necessary. Why does he bother? She looks like a hundred other women on the Upper West Side: pale, dark-haired, lanky. A thirtyish blur. She could be pretty if she tried, but she has long since stopped trying. Clara stares back at the man. Stop looking at me. This, too, she has forgotten about the city: the brazen way that people size each other up, constantly weighing, judging, comparing. So very different from the Yankee containment of Maine, where everybody just minds their own business.The phone call came at about eleven o’clock, a few nights ago. No one ever called that late; it was as if the ring itself had a slightly shriller tone to it. (Of course, this could be what her memory is supplying to the moment now—now that she is here.) Everybody was asleep. Jonathan, Sam, Zorba, the puppy, in his crate downstairs in the kitchen.Jonathan groped for the phone.“Hello?”A long pause—too long—and then he reached over and turned on the bedside lamp. It was freezing in their bedroom, the bed piled with four blankets. One of the windowsills was rotting, but to fix it meant ripping the whole thing out, which meant real construction, which cost money, which they didn’t have.Jonathan handed her the phone.“Who is it?” she mouthed, hand over the receiver.He shook his head.“Hello?” She cleared her throat, hoarse from sleep. “Hello?”“Clara?”With a single word—her own name—her head tightened. Robin almost never called her, and certainly not at this hour. They talked exactly once a year, on the anniversary of their father’s death. Clara sank deeper beneath the pile of blankets, the way an animal might try to camouflage itself, sensing danger. Her mind raced through the possibilities. Something had happened, something terrible. Robin would not be calling with good news. And there was only one person, really, whom they shared.“What’s wrong?” Clara’s voice was a squeak. A pathetic little mouse.“I’m going to tell you something—and I want you to promise me you won’t hang up.”Clara was silent. The mirror over the dresser facing the bed was hanging askew, and she could see herself and Jonathan, their rumpled late-night selves. Through the receiver, on Robin’s end, she heard office sounds. The muted ring of corporate telephones, even at this hour.“Don’t hang up. Promise?”How like Robin to want to seal the deal, to control the situation, before Clara even knows what the situation is.“Okay.”“Say ‘promise.’ ”Clara squeezed her hands into fists.“Christ! I promise.”“Ruth is . . . she’s sick. She’s—oh, shit, Clara. It’s bad. She’s very sick.”“What do you mean?” Clara responded. The words didn’t make sense. She was stupid with shock.“Listen. I’m just calling to say that you need to come home,” Robin said.There it was. Fourteen years—and there it was. Home. She was home, goddammit.“I’ve made myself insane, going around and around in circles.” Robin paused. “My therapist finally said it wasn’t up to me—that you had a right to know.”“How long has this been going on?” Clara managed to ask.“Awhile,” Robin said. She sounded tired. Three kids, partner in a midtown law firm; of course she was tired. Clara couldn’t imagine her sister’s life.Clara climbed out of bed and walked over to the window. She was suddenly suffocatingly hot in the freezing room. The lights from the harbor beckoned in the distance.“Look, the truth is—I can’t deal with this by myself,” Robin said. Never, in Clara’s memory, had Robin ever admitted such a thing. She was the queen of competence.“I have to think about it,” Clara said. Her sister was silent on the other end of the phone. Clara tried to picture her, but the image wasn’t clear: round brown eyes, a tense mouth. “Okay, Robin? This is— I never thought I would ever even consider—”“I know,” said Robin. “But please.”After she hung up the phone, Clara climbed back into bed and twined her legs around Jonathan’s, her hands on his belly. She closed her eyes tight and burrowed her face into the crease of his neck. He was asking her something—What are you going to do?—but his voice sounded muffled, as if suddenly there were something, something thick and cottony, separating her from her real life. She breathed Jonathan in, fighting the avalanche of thoughts.
What People are Saying About This
"Gavin's compelling voice seduces listeners into believing this is her own story. Her...voice grips listeners and adds soul to Shapiro's story of reconciliation." -AudioFile
Reading Group Guide
“Spellbinding . . . provocative, hypnotic . . . spot-on authentic. A cool depiction of a mother and daughter's fraught and fiery relationship.”
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Black & White, Dani Shapiro's provocative novel about mothers and daughters, the corrosive power of secrets, and the complexity of forgiveness.
1. What does the book's title suggest about life's absolutes? Is it possible for moral absolutes to exist—and to survive—in a family?
2. The novel's epigraph features Walker Evans's imperative to “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” Does Ruth's work with Clara constitute an attempt to educate the eye? There is a vivid contrast between the immediacy of Evans's photos of Depression-era sharecroppers and the artifice of Ruth's carefully staged compositions. What do you make of Shapiro's use of the quote from Evans? Does Ruth die “knowing something”? If so, what is it?
3. When Sammy innocently suggests that they throw away all of Ruth's old magazines, Clara experiences a moment of “near-euphoric clarity” [p. 203]. Why? What does the act of purging “her mother's apartment of all that is unnecessary . . . every single unessential thing” represent to Clara [p. 203]?
4. Ruth's first words to Clara, after fourteen years of silence, are “Wait a minute” [p. 14]. What's the significance of this? In what ways has Ruth kept Clara waiting, or in a state of suspended animation, over the years?
5. Photographer Sally Mann's photographs of her own children, often pictured nude and in intimate settings, have been vilified as pornographic by some critics. Is Ruth meant to evoke Mann? How does the narrator describe Ruth's photographs? Do they read as beautiful? Lurid? Upsetting? To what extent is the narration sympathetic with Clara? How would the novel be different if the story were told in first person with Clara as the narrator? With Ruth as the narrator?
6. On her final circuit of the art galleries in Chelsea, Ruth suffers the devastating embarrassment of anonymity. How does her humiliation affect Clara?
7. Robin believes that she was neglected while Clara received all of Ruth's attention. How has she channeled this neglect in her adult life? Does she undergo a transformation in the course of the novel?
8. Rather than relish the memory of “the year her mother left her alone,” Clara recalls the year as “blank, like a skipped page in a notebook. A mistake” [p. 164]. In fact, Clara goes so far as to study the critics' reactions to this gap in Ruth's career: “Whole academic papers have been published on the subject. Clara's personal favorite, 'The Interrupted Gaze,' . . . is a psychoanalytic meditation on Ruth's work” [p. 164]. Why does Clara insist on immersing herself in what is ostensibly her least favorite topic, to the extent of reading academic papers? Does her obsessive behavior affect your ability to empathize with her? Is it meant to?
9. Kubovy is certain that Nathan “would be no more than a footnote in the ultimate biography of Ruth Dunne” [p. 89]. Is he right? Is Nathan merely a footnote in the novel? Why is there so little information about his death and its impact on the three women in the family?
10. The act of creating a family of her own gives Clara the opportunity to examine every nuance of her mother's behavior from a safe distance. By comparing Ruth's gaze to Jonathan's, Clara realizes that “Ruth's attention was predatory, stalking. . . Laying claim to her. . . . Drowning out all that is good” [p. 123]. Yet, as a mother, Clara also “knows the feeling. . . . The desire to devour, the almost physical need to envelop and keep safe” [p. 133]. How do these opposing insights serve Clara when she comes face-to-face with Ruth at last?
11. Ruth's claim that, “it's my work. It's not about you-it was never about you” [p. 79] astonishes Clara and sets up a staggering dividing line between the two women early in their reunion. Is this remark meant to emphasize Ruth's extreme self-absorption, or Clara's? Can this moment be considered the climax of the novel?
12. When an affronted Peony challenges Clara and Robin about their apparent disregard for Ruth's dignity, she asks, “How can you not understand how lucky you are?” [p. 207]. Why does the section end there, without exposing the two sisters' reactions to this question? What would their answers have been?
13. During Ruth's final hours, she begs Sam for forgiveness, mistaking the child for Clara. Clara fails to rescue her frightened daughter from this awkward scenario because “she can't help it. She wants to hear more” [p. 220]. What does this scene suggest about Clara's weaknesses? Why doesn't she prompt Sam to agree to forgive the dying woman? Is Clara's reticence at this crucial moment justifiable?
14. Clara's obsession with the photographs of herself is linked to her concept of identity. As a child, they represent togetherness with her mother: “Sometimes Clara imagines that they are together in that black-and-white world, that the place inside the pictures is the real one and this—all this is just a rehearsal” [p. 52]. As an adult, she is able to recognize a photo of herself from the tiniest sliver of image “because those images have always been more vivid and immediate to Clara than anything she might actually be seeing” [p. 76]. What does this imply about Clara's sense of self? What shifts for Clara over the course of the novel, providing her with the emotional wherewithal to host the book party? What is the significance of her catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror in the book's final paragraph?
15. Ruth's enigmatic dedication in the book Clara reads: “To Clara and Robin, Without whom.” What are some possible meanings of this phrase, beyond the obvious “without whom none of it would have been possible” [p. 255]?
16. Clara's emotional reactions to Ruth's illness ricochet from fear, “Please don't be dead” [p. 137], to dispassion, “Just die. . . . Just die already” [p. 177], to guilt, “I'm killing her . . . it's my fault she's dying” [p. 228]. What do these phrases reveal about the complexities of death in a dysfunctional family? What is Clara's emotional state at the moment of Ruth's actual death?
17. As Clara peruses a stack of photographs of herself at her mother's bedside, she is “overtaken by a violent, intense desire to rip the pictures in two” and “sits on her hands . . . to stop herself from doing something she can never take back” [p. 77]. How would the novel be different if Clara had acted on this impulse? Would she be a more or less likable character? Are the photographs hers to destroy?
18. Clara's stunned reaction to being left in control of Ruth's body of work is the liberating, optimistic conclusion “She loved me” [p. 252]. Do you agree that this is Ruth's posthumous message to her daughter, or might there be a more psychologically complex message at the root of her decision?