The Passion Dream Book travels from the Italian Renaissance, when a girl spends her days spying on a famous young artist and experiences the divided love of wanting the artist and wanting to be the artist. Progressing to the early years of the 20th century, the novel follows the experiences of two artists, Romy March, a descendent of the Renaissance girl, and Augustine Marks.
Otto's novel is an imaginative mix of fact and fiction, history and story about the two enduring, occasionally conflicting passions of love and work. As Romy March and Augustine Marks migrate from place to place, separately and together, their love is their home and their home is each other.
The outsider lives they lead provide them with various living situations, including silent-era Hollywood, the Harlem Renaissance, Paris in the late 1920s and back to America. The novel touches on the migratory habits of artist colonies (and why they don't last), on race (since Romy and Augustine are of different races) and how one lives when tradition does not hold.
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About the Author
Whitney Otto has a B.A in history and an M.F.A. in English from the University of California at Irvine. She is a native of California and currently lives with her husband, John, and son, Sam, in Portland, OR.
Read an Excerpt
1. The Gates of Paradise
For much of the Renaissance, Florence was ruled by a rich and powerful family who loved the arts and fame and their good name in equal measure. They understood that to protect their land and other holdings meant the liberal use of physical force, but that there must be something worth protecting. Worth preserving. Art, they decided, art is the measure of a man. They viewed churches, paintings, and statues as monuments to their glory. In that regard, they understood further that all their accomplishments would come to naught if there was no remaining record. The only record that could possibly remain was art.
Art that bears their image, their stamps, their victories, their mistresses, their wives, their children, and their beliefs would insure their immortality.
Artists, on the other hand, saw the power and money and need of their patrons as a way of doing their work.
This arrangement, which resembled two brilliant mirrors placed face-to-face, each reflecting the other's image, produced the errant shards of split light that fell on the realm of the Renaissance.
The alliance of artist and patron was not limited to secular men with money. When the papacy returned to Rome and strove for unfettered power, the first thing for which the popes emptied their coffers was art.
Artists began showing up as dinner guests, seated beside cardinals and dukes. They discussed theories and ideas. The citizenry sought the extravagant beauty the artist could provide in designing something as grand as a cathedral or as mundane as the handle of a dagger. If a poor boy showed the slightest talent or inclinationtoward art, he was given instruction. An indication of the great numbers of artists and their need to organize was the establishment of their own guild, the Guild of Saint Luke.
All this courting and whispering and the promise of wondrous life seeded a competitive spirit among cities and individuals and the artists themselves. Everyone wanted "the best." But how could the best be determined when judging something as ephemeral, as smoky, as shape-shifting as art? A competition, it was decided, would provide a winner, one artist who would be declared the best.
In 1401 a design was needed for the east doors
of the baptistery in Florence. Three artists--Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and Jacopo della Quercia--submitted bronze panels depicting the assigned subject: The Sacrifice of Isaac.
2. The Sacrifice of Isaac
Next to the water of winter/she and I raised/a red bonfire/wearing out our lips/from kissing each other's souls. And that, son, writes Neruda, is how you came into the world.
From kissing each other's souls.
The story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is not a tale of the soul-kissed love that can bring a child into the world; rather, it is a lesson in the stern-voiced devotional love that would take a child out of it.
Abraham and his wife, Sarah, lived one hundred years without children. Then they had Isaac, promised to be the first of as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. However, after Isaac was given to them, God asked for him back.
What did Abraham think as he climbed with his boy toward the sacrificial altar? Did he think:
It is far easier to live a century without a child than it is to exist for a single day once that child has been taken from you?
Is this the unraveling of God's promise of all those thousands of confetti-tossed stars?
What is the sum of divided love?
Or maybe he told himself that the first thing he must do once the deed is done is to begin to forget the memory of Isaac. Forget the look of trust on Isaac's face as he looks upon his father's face for the last time. This thought is the one that starts to break him down as he makes his climb.
and I, to clasp/her tiny waist,/walked all the earth,/with the wars and mountains/with the sands and thorns/That's how you came into the world.
Only a broken man could carry out such an act of murder against his child. Something must have torn inside Abraham to allow himself to consider this killing.
Or was it a form of love? Was it love or duty that made Abraham lead Isaac to the altar? Was it a need to know something about love or duty that drew the demand from God? Was it love, finally, that stayed Abraham's hand when God's angel reached out, sparing Isaac? This father-and-son sacrifice, this dress rehearsal for another father-and-son sacrifice.
Neruda writes: You come from so many places/toward the two of us/from the terrible love/that has enchained us.
It is good to keep in mind that winning such a competition could garner for the artist admiration, fame, money, praise, and a desire for his company. As compelling as all that might be, much of the time the artist just wants to do his work.
How can "the best" be judged?
Jacopo della Quercia's panel: It did not survive to the present day.
Ghiberti's panel: The figures are fluid, graceful, elegant, as carefully choreographed as a dance. Spatially pleasing, not too daring, the disturbance of the source material muted. His Abraham is as threatening to Isaac as beautiful actors in an unpleasant play.
Brunelleschi's panel: His Abraham grips Isaac's small head, forcing it back to expose his smooth throat. He presses the blade of the knife into the soft flesh as an angel seizes Abraham's arm to prevent the murder. Abraham's posture with Isaac resembles that of an animal lunging toward prey.
Ghiberti's panel allows no contact between the figures; Brunelleschi's panel has Abraham grasping Isaac, with the angel restraining Abraham. Ghiberti's panel is a pantomime of murder and salvation, his Isaac a delicately wrought child balancing on his knees, facing his father without resistance. While Brunelleschi's Isaac is awkwardly placed, his head thrust back by his father's hand, his mouth open as if in midcry, he has one foot behind him, the other before him, poised to bolt.
How is it possible to judge the better interpretation? Which is preferable? The slightly unsettling loveliness of Ghiberti's bronze or the fierce heartbreak of Brunel-leschi's rendition?
What constitutes the best is the question that will dog art lovers forever; it will be the source of heated discussion; it will result in the squaring-off of loyalties. It will refuse any sort of answer. It is not the problem.
When Ghiberti won the competition for the baptistery doors in 1401, he said, "To me was conceded the palm of victory by all the experts and by all . . . who competed with me. . . . To all it seemed that I had at the time surpassed the others without exception." This is the problem.
The problem with proclaiming someone "the best" is that everyone begins to believe it. Including the artist. And once the best is declared, then everyone else, by definition, is only pretty good, but not as good as the best. If a city is able to hold a competition such as the one in 1401, then it is probably due to having a number of worthy artists living in close proximity. None of them want to be labeled "not the best." Since money and fame are part of being "the best," the colony can become as inflamed as if in a state of siege.
Money changes everything. It brings the artist recognition, invitations, desires realized and desires unknown; it plucks a painter from obscurity and makes him a hero.
It means an artist can do his work.
Money breeds a strange sort of envy in that the artist may covet the attention paid and the commissions of another, more fortunate artist, without coveting his ability. It is a hard life that is subject to the whims of taste. It is a powerless life. Though it is well to remember that Florence was a place that generally respected its artists. As Albrecht D*rer said during a visit to Italy in 1505, "Here I am a gentleman, at home I am a parasite." Still, you have to accept the preferences of taste. You can't make anyone love you. This is true of love in general. You can't make them.
Lorenzo Ghiberti, the great artist who won the famous 1401 competition for the baptistery doors in Florence, left his heirs rare and delicate bronze work; marble and bronze antiques; a life-size bronze model of a human leg; several male and female heads; a variety of torsos. He also passed down the secret of his bronze technique, only to have finally a great-grandson who made bad sculpture and was robbed and murdered, ending the family line.
What succeeds Ghiberti is his fame and his work. This is why the smart men with money during the Renaissance funded the arts, requesting their likeness painted on canvas and wood, and why they collected, eventually, for the sake of collecting. The Passion Dream Book. Copyright © by Whitney Otto. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
"A beautifully written, marvelously resonant tale that entertains as it illuminates."Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Whitney Otto keeps the promise of her first novel...The Passion Dream Book incorporates actual figures and events in its fictionalized world...A rare pleasure."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I bought this book on impulse, and had no clue what to expect; two months later I picked it up and began reading. The first story fascinated me- it was simple, beautiful, poignant. I could relate extremely well to Guilietta's split love between art and artist. The philosophical mini-essays that Otto threw in here and there really added to the atmosphere, too. Unfortunately, that story line ended quickly, and when the book skipped four hundred years ahead to Romy and Augustine I lost all interest. It seemed cluttered and forced, like Otto was trying too hard to make her point. Still, the Guilietta prologue is worth anything.