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A Novel of Infidelity and the Art World, on a Crowded Canvas

THE ART OF FALLING
By Danielle McLaughlin

Danielle McLaughlin is a remarkable writer. Reading “Dinosaurs on Other Planets,” her 2016 collection of short stories, one is struck by the sheer gorgeousness of the prose, particularly in descriptions of natural settings; by the quick, seemingly effortless characterizations of her often very complex characters; by the elegant and sometimes devastating economy of the narration; and by McLaughlin’s sure-handed sense of the shape of the short story. It’s exciting to read the work of someone who is so clearly gifted.

In her new novel, her first, “The Art of Falling,” we encounter many of these same gifts, but here they’re not offered with as sure a hand. And when they do make themselves evident, they often seem swamped by a tendency to pile on event after event, as if that were the difference between a short story and a novel — the need for more to happen, and even more after that.

The plot, then. Our main character, Nessa, is struggling to come to terms with her husband Philip’s infidelity with the mother of their daughter’s best friend; and simultaneously trying to cope with this newly hostile daughter. In addition, she’s mounting a gallery show of the work of one Robert Locke, a long-dead sculptor, hoping to bring new attention to what she sees as his strange genius, embodied most perfectly in the faceless statue of a pregnant woman. She’s been working closely with his difficult elderly widow and devoted daughter, who hope, for several reasons — money for them, renewed fame and glory for him — for the show’s success.

Complicating this is the persistent claim made by another, less elderly woman (though her age seems variable) that she, and not Locke, was either the creator of his most famous work; or perhaps only helped to create it; or inspired it; or maybe was the model for it. Tiresomely, she keeps popping up to press one or another of these claims: at a talk Nessa gives at the gallery, at Nessa’s home, then at the home of Locke’s widow, and again at the gallery, this time pretending to be a docent, and so on. All of which threatens the integrity of the upcoming show.

The complications to the other part of the story, the marital infidelity and Nessa’s persistent sense of being deeply wronged by it, involve the appearance of one Stuart Harkin and his 20-ish son, Luke. Years earlier, we discover only now, Stuart and Nessa had a long, secret affair while he was living with and then married to Nessa’s dearest friend, Amy. Later, well after Nessa was herself married, they slept together again.

Luke discovers these facts and threatens to expose Nessa’s dual betrayal — of Philip and Amy, which betrayal may have caused Amy, his mother, to kill herself when he was still a toddler.

Whew!

Indeed, McLaughlin herself seems overwhelmed by all these complications, enough so that she loses track of the details of various of its strands — a few of which seem to emerge from a similar situation in one of her short stories. There’s some confusion about just how long ago Philip had his affair. There are different versions of the degree of Stuart’s infidelity. Was he wildly promiscuous? Or unfaithful only once, with Nessa? At one point Nessa tracks down her daughter via a suddenly remembered handy app on her cellphone; in a later moment when she’s desperate to find the girl, she appears to have forgotten that possibility entirely. Occasionally she seems to know what’s happening in a scene she doesn’t have access to.

Finally, it’s hard to get Nessa. Sometimes she seems highly competent. At other times she rushes headlong into situations whose disastrous outcomes are clear to the reader from the get-go. (Don’t do that, Nessa!) Sometimes she seems lost in genuine sorrow about her husband’s infidelity; but later, about to be exposed in her own infidelity and wanting to hold onto the moral advantage her victimhood gives her, she calculatingly decides to confess to Philip only the part of her infidelity that happened before their marriage.

It’s hard, too, to hold onto the sense we have of other characters, because their behavior often seems dictated by the necessities of the complicated plot; and this, in turn, makes it harder to hold onto a clear sense of what, exactly, the plot is.

And yet we want to. We want to go on reading because there are examples of McLaughlin’s gifts on every page, and in them the promise of the pleasure a novel more fully in her control will offer. I, for one, can’t wait.

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