§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: The Great Man by Kate Christensen

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Great Man by Kate Christensen

The novel begins with the newspaper obit of Oscar Feldman, an influential painter whose work consisted entirely of female nudes, and it ends with a newspaper review of two just-published biographies of Feldman. Most of the action in the novel takes place five years after Feldman’s death, with detours into the past and the future.

Feldman had a wife, Abigail, and a retarded son to whom she was devoted and whom Oscar pretty much ignored. They lived in an apartment on Riverside Drive purchased by her wealthy parents when they married. He also had a long-term mistress, Claire (Teddy) St. Cloud, who lived in Brooklyn and with whom he had twin daughters, Ruby and Samantha. The other major player in the novel is his elder sister, Maxine, an abstract painter who’s got far less attention from the art world than Oscar. Abigail and Teddy have never met, though both know a great deal about the other. Maxine—a formidable elderly lesbian in her 80ies—supports Abigail but doesn’t like her and thoroughly disapproves of Teddy. Enter the two biographers to interview all these women: Henry, a college professor with a busy wife and infant son, who’s obviously not getting enough attention from his wife. Ralph is black and gay, but not “out”. There’s also a long-kept secret, known to the women, that will come out and make a splash in the art world.

The biographers’ questions and the secret they don’t really care to keep bring the women together and move them to deal finally with Oscar’s death. Teddy and her best friend Lila, both in their seventies, start affairs, Ruby has an affair with one of the biographers, and Abigail develops a different relationship with the other. Maxine’s career gets a boost when the secret comes out and she reconnects with a lover she let pass her by. One of the author’s stated aims for the book was to write about love and relationships among older women, one of those subjects novelists usually ignore—sex over seventy.

Christensen writes well and I laughed in a number of places, especially as Maxine characterizes (satirizes) a young woman who explains her work in contemporary art world terms. I liked it too that Maxine comes later to like and admire that same young woman. I laughed "review" of the two biographies at the end, but won't tell you why.


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