on 20 May 2014
The opening sentence pulls you in: `In the days leading up to my husband Owen's death, he visited Alison's house every afternoon.'
Augusta, the narrator, is an artist and Owen is a writer. They have buried themselves in the countryside to work without distractions and to attempt to recover their equilibrium after Augusta's affair. When their peace is disturbed by the arrival of a new neighbour we guess that she is going to impact on their relationship, but the story that unfolds is not predictable. Nor does it depend on twists and turns of the plot, it is perfectly paced and the writing is a joy.
By the time I finished this book I was drained and exhausted. I felt that I had lived Augusta's life, experienced her emotional roller-coaster, plumbed the depths of her grief. I was actually furious with some of the characters and the bad choices they had made (a bit like when you put down a Thomas Hardy novel). It took me a while to come back to the real world and put it in perspective.
It's ages since I wrote an Amazon review, but I had to share my thoughts on this one and encourage people to read Robin Black. She ought to be universally lauded and well-known, but then this is her first novel so I suppose it will take time for the word to get out. If I can play a part in spreading it I will consider it an honour. And no, I'm not on her payroll or connected in any way whatsoever, just bowled over by the clarity and quality of her writing. Her voice gets into your head.
Her short story collection, If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, was moving and beautifully crafted and I enthused over that to the point of sycophancy. How could I do otherwise? This woman is the real deal and up there with the greatest contemporary American writers. I love Anne Tyler, Curtis Sittenfeld, Valerie Martin and A.M. Homes. Black compares with the best of them. Elaine Showalter, get onto it and put her in your next book. Sublime.
on 13 November 2015
This is the story of Augusta and Owen who have retreated into the country to pursue their artistic ambitions but whose life together is turned upside down by the arrival of a new neighbour. Problem number one: I was never convinced either of them had any artistic talent. Owen is such a dull feckless man whose dialogue is so wooden and banal that it was impossible to imagine him as an underappreciated cult writer. Augusta too comes across as a dilettante artist. You have the feeling both are burying their heads in the sand and were they to have proper jobs they might refrain from their obsessive tiresome naval gazing. Problem number two: I never felt the author was in control of her material. Augusta has earlier betrayed her husband but he has forgiven her, though, perhaps as a consequence, he is contending with writer’s block. So, we presume the novel is about the diminishing returns of marriage or the “corrosive effects of betrayal”. But then all kinds of disconnected themes are shoehorned into the novel. Augusta is obsessed with dead WW1 soldiers and they are her next painting project. I never had a clue what this was all about. She is also obsessed with her dead mother and dead sister both of whom died young. And she is coping with her father who has dementia. All of a sudden the novel seems to be about departure and absence and remembering/forgetting. But for me she never manages to connect all these threads. She’s constantly tossing in stuff that we’re supposed to believe has a thematic profundity but for me it was random and messy. The English neighbour one night kills a doe with her reckless driving. Her daughter then arrives at the house who is portrayed as a bit of an innocent. But the connection between the two events is not only gratuitous but all wrong. The mother doesn’t kill innocence. The naval gazing couple do that. Problem number three: My Oscar for most irritating male character I’ve encountered this year goes to Updike’s rabbit; my vote for most irritating female character goes to Augusta, the narrator of this novel. Crikey is she tiresome! And her husband isn’t much better. Possibly the most boring unconvincing writer ever fictionalised. Problem number four: The relentless ellipses in the fragmented dialogue drove me bonkers. No one could speak without dramatic pauses. “I think…What I mean is…Though, of course…I understand how you…feel.” This constant striving to pump up the volume became almost comical eventually.
Often while reading this I couldn’t help thinking of the hugely successful novels I’ve read about marital strife – A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel and Freedom by Franzen for example – and how thin and unwise this was in comparison.
on 26 December 2015
LIFE DRAWING [by Robin Black]. Not sure how this came to me; it has some terrific reviews on Amazon but I don’t think from memory, that was why I bought it. Might have been a newspaper review. I quite liked it. I liked the premise: a first person narration of a forty-plus woman who had an affair in her recent past, and the fall-out from that and the never-ending guilt. This is how one Amazon reviewer summarises it:
I was disappointed. What is this novel about really? Well for one thing it is about regret: staying too long in a bad relationship, destroying trust, losing touch with people, among other things. It is about loss and disappointment. But especially, it is about how even intelligent, well meaning people make mistakes, and how sometimes these mistakes pile one on top of another until there is a disaster.
Well, I think that was Robin Black’s intention but the execution is something else. The main character, the narrator, has no friends. How do you get to forty-five or whatever and have no girlfriends you can confide in. And the cheated husband, he has no friends either and both of them
work from home and are butting up to one another 24/7 and there are no kids and his parents are remote academics and live hundreds of miles away and her mother died when she was five and . . . .
I mean how many contrivances can you cram into one novel?
No sex. Why? Because Robin Black has teenage daughters [it says so in the biog at the back] and for sure she doesn’t want her girls reading any realistic sex scenes. Jeez mom. The end, with the force of a deus ex machine, prepared for, but still somewhat un-believable, was awful and was yet a further layer of contrivance upon contrivance.
Nice, beguiling prose style.
A painter, Gus, and her writer husband, Owen, depart for a cabin in the woods to heal their wounds.....maybe!. Gus is a woman of many woes but the biggest one of all; she had an affair and her husband knows all about it. Their journey into seclusion is partly an attempt to spend time together, get to know one another all over again and try to rekindle their relationship. Can Owen really every forgive her?. Time will tell but; it's a well known fact once one of your strays the other one is likely to do the same in a sort of 'revenge affair' scenario. Can she really trust Owen?. That's a question bought into sharp focus when the charming Alison moves into a cabin nearby and begins to worm her way into their life.
The novel is narrated by Gus and works well from that perspective. She's obviously paranoid about losing Owen and racked with guilt over her affair. To make matters worse there are further problems within her family and she seems almost unable to paint in just the same way Owen seems unable to write. They're at crisis point. Something has to give before they can move on - it does - I'm not telling you what!.
'Life Drawing' is sparse, careful, tightly plotted and a hard novel to categorise. Not a thriller, psychological thriller or romance but rather a plausible 'real life' story told from the point of view of someone who is becoming just slightly unhinged with guilt and anxiety. Quite introspective and claustrophobic.
There are few surprises, a fair amount of melodrama and a reasonable conclusion that wasn't entirely expected.
Negatives?. I found the characters hard to bond with and certainly hard to feel empathy for. I lost patience. Fortunately the novel is short and very easy to read in just a couple of sittings which helped preserve the tension and keep me interested. Positives?. I enjoyed the themes around the old newspaper cuttings with the photos of young soldiers, probably long dead, reaching out for discovery. Loved all of that and would have enjoyed the novel much more had those ideas been further developed.
Nothing too wrong with 'Life Drawing'. I'd certainly recommend it. Just failed to convince me.
on 4 March 2014
An artist and a writer, Augusta (Gus) and Owen, have moved to rural New England to concentrate on their work and sort out some problems in their marriage and work. Owen has developed writer' block and Gus is disappointed with the way her painting is going. Past infidelity on her part has made their personal life uncomfortable and though they wanted peace and quiet a new neighbour, Alison, is not that unwelcome to either of them. However, for all of them life is about to change.
I loved the style of this novel. Gus is the narrator and we learn in the first sentence what the end will be, but the journey there makes rivetting reading. The interplay of Gus, Owen, Alison, her daughter Nora, Gus's father and a few other people is all worked out from Gus's point of view. She is a creature filled with guilt and self-reproach but husband Owen is for me a much less sympathetic character.
I loved the descriptions of Gus's painting; her ability to paint detailed and beautiful backgrounds for her paintings and her inability to paint people who look alive. She finds old newspapers used as insulation in the walls of their old farmhouse containing reports and pictures of local young men killed in WW1 and believes she has found subjects for her painting, but struggles with it as her life collapses around her.
I liked this novel very much. The descent into melodrama at the end didn't quite convince me, but I felt for Gus, enjoyed the setting of the novel and the grace of the telling.
I tried to like this novel, I really did, but within 50 pages I had to stop. I disliked the characters and their concerns and although the writing was good, I just lost interest.
The book deals with middle-class Americans who've moved to the country to pursue their art - Augusta paints, Owen writes. They agonise over their attempts to grow herbs. They worry about their disintegrating marriage. They have relationships with other people, decorous affairs which go wrong in various ways while they struggle with maintaining appearances.
Perhaps all this might appeal to a different reader. Perhaps there are writers who could make this kind of subject matter palatable to me; Michael Cunningham's finely observed social and emotional landscapes spring to mind. But I'm afraid this one just didn't gel for me.
August (Gus) and her husband Owen have retreated to their cabin in the woods, ostensibly to find some space to pursue their careers as an artist and a writer respectively, but also to try to repair the damage done to their marriage by the affair Gus had a few years earlier. They're wallowing in their anti-social, introspective existence and do not immediately welcome the arrival of Alison, the woman who is renting the house next to theirs for the summer. However, first Gus and then Owen are gradually charmed and beguiled by Alison and her daughter Nora until the two families become dangerously close, sharing intimacies and indiscretions to a point where you just know it's not going to end well.
Gus is our narrator and just how reliable she is comes into question fairly early on in the novel. She's paranoid that her husband will take his revenge by having an affair of his own and her state of mind is not helped by the fact that she's still grieving for her beloved older sister who died five years earlier and dealing with her father's Alzheimer's which is becoming rapidly and violently worse. She's also reached a bit of a hiatus with her work, until she comes across some newspapers from 1918 during renovation work on the house and becomes immersed in the stories of the local boys who didn't come back from the war in Europe.
Robin Black has a pared-down, no nonsense style of writing which suits the tone of the book perfectly. The pace is fairly slow and thoughtful, but all the better for giving the reader a chance to absorb the nuances of Gus and Owen's claustrophobic relationship and the effect the arrival of Alison and her daughter has on it. The tension mounts slowly and steadily as Gus's doubts about her husband's fidelity spiral and the dramatic ending, although rather out of kilter with the tone of the rest of the book, certainly added a new dimension to the storyline.
I wouldn't describe Life Drawing as a psychological thriller; it's more subtle than that. I know some people found it too introspective but I became totally absorbed into Gus's world of paranoia and self-doubt and look forward to reading more from this talented author in the future.
Gus and Owen have moved out of Philadelphia to a remote country spot where they can continue working, Gus (Augusta), is a painter, Owen a writer. Lucky enough to have inherited some money to make their dream happen they fall in love with an old farmhouse, built in 1918 which gives Gus new inspirations for her work, when old newspapers are discovered and written inside are accounts of the dead young soldiers.
Beneath the surface the other reason for the move out of the city still lingers. Gus had had an affair, she wants to be far away from reminders of the man, one of their friends.
Right at the start of the novel we are told that Owen is dead.
We don't know the circumstances, and I almost forgot that he would die, while I continued reading.
At times I was caught up in the details of Gus's painting and her burgeoning friendship with a new neighbour, Alison. The pace is slow and intense, at times perhaps too slow and self absorbed. The characters not quite as well drawn as I wanted. I wanted to visualise them and I couldn't.
By the time the pace changes I had lost interest in the people and the story, and so I was in for a surprise.
The writing is good, at times I found the novel enjoyable but towards the end I was bored.
I will go with three but I will definitely read other books by this author because I liked a lot of her outlook as well as her writing.
Augusta (Gus), an artist, and Owen, a writer, move to a remote old farmhouse deep in the country to devote their time to their art, and to re-establish their marriage which has been somewhat shaky in the wake of Gus's affair a few years previously.
Their tranquillity is unexpectedly disrupted by the arrival of Alison who moves in across the way. Reluctantly Gus, and eventually Owen, are drawn into a friendship with her; she and Gus take long walks together during which they eventually share secrets and confidences. Alison is touchy, feely - a sharp contrast to Gus's lack of outward emotion. Into this mix comes Nora, Alison's young and beautiful daughter; surprise, surprise, she develops a crush on Owen, who is still nursing his wounds after Gus's affair. Gus has a lot to deal with - the death of her older sister, Charlotte, her father's descent into Alzheimers hell, Owen's lack of communication and her own creative difficulties
Although beautifully written I could not engage with any of the characters: Owen is tormented by writer's block and takes no interest in Gus's work. She has finally immersed herself in a project after finding old newspapers stuffed into the cavities of their bathroom wall. They are both so self-absorbed, Gus especially, and I found the passages about her painting and obsession with the dead boy soldiers just too much, making this aspect of the novel boring rather than interesting.
I really enjoyed the first half of this book, for the writing alone, but it's all a bit too heavy and intense with not much of anything happening; I just wanted them all to get on with something. Then, all of a sudden, it does. The pace is slow, too slow for my taste, but if you like character driven novels with not much of a plot then this is for you. I prefer more plot and less introspection. I'm torn with this one as I love the quality of the writing, but I felt let down by the content, which is why I have given it three stars.
on 27 April 2014
This book was sent to me in exchange for a honest review.
When this book was sent, I knew nothing about it, however after reading the blurb I couldn't wait to read it as I thought I was really going to enjoy it.
The story begins through the voice of Gus, Owen is dead, right from the first few pages and it is apparent that we are going to be finding out the case of his death. I enjoyed this style of writing and the direction the book took. We were given enough information to get us hooked and wanting to find out how this had happened.
Gus and Owen used to live in the city, Gus had been struggling with the prospect of her being unable to have children and this took it's toll on their marriage. They have been married a long time and children just never happened. Gus was unfaithful while she struggled with this turmoil. She decided to be honest with Owen as their marriage was based on trust. He decided to stand by her but not in the city. They moved out into the country side with no one around for miles, except for a house that had been abandoned years ago. They were pretty comfortable with their new life. Owen as a writer and Gus as an artist. They both had enough room for them to progress with their careers and they made steady progress in their marriage. Although Owen has moved on Gus cannot help think it will never be forgotten and will linger over them.
One day a woman, Alison turns up at their door, she is their new neighbour much to Owens disgust, their cocooned life was being to unravel and Owen didn't like it. Gus relished in the opportunity to be sociable again and began to confide in Alison as a friend. Their lives were beginning to change and the dynamics of the house were shifting.
I found the first half of the book a little of a struggle. I found it hard to connect to the characters and I found there was a lack of pace in the story line. Once I had finished the book and looked back I understood why the author spent so long building the tension and things did begin to slot into place. Saying that the book was not predictable, I kept second guessing what was going to happen and who it would be with. Needless to say I did not know and I enjoyed the twist.
The whole story was told through Gus's voice, which I thought worked well. The story is about love, jealousy, revenge, betrayal, marriage and friendship. It was well written and the story stayed with me some time after I had finished it. This book makes you think about long lasting effects of your own actions and second guessing what someone you love may do.
I enjoyed watching the relationship between Gus and Alison unfold and the tension between the two build up and shift. You begin to get sucked into their lives and feel more involved than your meant to. This is an engaging read.
Although this is a book that I probably would not have picked up myself I am glad the publisher sent it to me, it is a shocking book that will last with you for days. I feel this is the type of book you can read more than once, once you have discovered the ending and re read I think you would discover new aspects the Gus and Owen's relationship that perhaps the first time around you would have missed. I also feel I would be looking harder for clues and tell, tell signs of the result.
I would be interested in reading more from Robin Black.
I would like to thank the publisher for sending it to me.