Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Review: "Life Drawing" by Robin Black

There are certain books you would like to devour in one or two sittings because of the suspense or tension their plots generate—you just need to know what will happen next and how the plot will be resolved. Then there are other books you wish you could devour because the writing is so breathtaking and you are so engaged in what is happening with the characters. The two aren't always mutually exclusive, but for me, books often fall in one category or the other.

Robin Black's Life Drawing definitely fell into the latter category for me. This book was so exquisitely written, so compelling, I would have been happy if it were double its length. (This isn't a surprise, of course; Black's short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This was among the best books I read in 2011.)

Owen and Augusta (Gus) have been together for a long time. He is a writer and she is an artist, and they've always lived a happy but slightly unorthodox, anti-establishment kind of life. But after their relationship nearly collapses following Gus' confession to a short-lived affair, they move away from their city life in Philadelphia to an isolated farmhouse in the country, where they try to concentrate on work and rebuilding the trust between them. They both struggle with their work at times, and although things seem to improve between them, there is always some underlying tension.

"There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you're having and the one you're not. Sometimes you don't even know when that second, silent one has begun."

Into their isolation comes Alison, who rents the vacant farmhouse next door. Although Gus is at first resentful of Alison's stopping by and encouraging the couple to socialize with her, she eventually comes to enjoy Alison's companionship, and both disclose the secrets that are plaguing them, and Alison also is a sympathetic ear to Gus' struggles with her father's increasing descent into Alzheimer's. But when Alison's young daughter, Nora, comes to visit, her presence, and what she brings along with her, threatens to shatter all of their relationships.

"I was right up close in a staring contest with the undeniable fact that for all the little things over which we have some control, for the most part we have none; and I was at a loss to know how to respond."

Life Drawing, well, draws you into its plot almost immediately. Gus, Owen, and Alison are complex characters. They're not always 100 percent likable but they're utterly fascinating, and although Black divulges one major plot twist early in the book, you still wonder how the story will get there. Sure, this type of story has been seen countless times before, but it's also different, and Black's skilled storytelling definitely sets it apart.

This is a book about trying to keep your heart and your head aligned, about how you can simultaneously love and dislike someone, and about how the things you fear can often come back to haunt you. I am sad to have finished this (despite flying through it) and can't stop thinking about these characters. As soon as Robin Black's next book comes out, I will undoubtedly leap on it. She's just that good.

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