Sunday, July 6, 2008

Art and Life Collide

The PEN/Faulkner 2008 award was given to Kate Christensen for her novel “The Great Man.” As the newest recipient of this award Ms. Christensen joins some of our book club’s favorite authors and past recipients, such as Ann Patchett for “Bel Canto” in 2002, Michael Cunningham for “The Hours” in 1999 and David Guterson for “Snow Falling on Cedars” in 1995.

“The Great Man” is the story of Oscar Feldman a renowned painter living and working in New York city in the forties and fifties. The story opens with Oscar’s obituary in the New York Times in 2001. It tells of Oscar’s innovative work as a painter of only one subject, the female nude. His work was prized by collectors and hung in many leading museums in the country. The obituary states that Oscar left his wife Abigail, his son Ethan and his sister Maxine Feldman a famous painter in her own right.

What the obituary did not state was that Oscar had another family living in Brooklyn. His long-time mistress, Teddy St. Cloud and their twin daughters learned that Oscar died when they read the obituary. The story evolves as two rival biographers begin to interview the women in Oscar’s life. Through the stories that Abigail, Maxine and Teddy relate, the reader learns that Oscar was not the great man that everyone thought he was. These women loved Oscar but they are revealed as the “great” ones. They have supported Oscar, emotionally, financially and physically, throughout his life. Kate Christensen portrays these women as funny, strong and completely in charge. The heart of the book is Ms. Christensen’s wonderful characters. Abigail the long suffering wife, who patiently cares for their autistic son, is someone of great strength and integrity. Maxine, Oscar’s sister, is a cranky, eighty four year old, lesbian painter who uses four letter words and drinks whiskey on the rocks. And, Teddy the seventy four year old, smart, sexy mistress lived her life for Oscar, was content to share a small part of it and asked for little.

The stories and the women collide as a secret “bet” and an art related scandal are revealed. The weaknesses of the great man are also revealed. “The great man,” said Teddy, “was the biggest human baby in all of history. That‘s no secret.” Kate Christensen is a witty, engaging observer of the art world in New York. The two biographers, in the end, write books that tell very different stories. But, the final story is that behind “great” men are the women who prop them up, forgive them and make them great.

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