Saturday, April 1, 2017

Book Review: "The Chalk Artist" by Allegra Goodman

Whether she intended it or not, I feel like Allegra Goodman's newest novel, The Chalk Artist, is two books in one.

It's a love story of sorts between two dreamers who come from different backgrounds and share different perspectives on how to make their dreams come true. At the same time, it's also a look at the world of video gaming and virtual reality, and the way it pulls all different types of people into its wake. On the surface you wouldn't think that these two disparate halves could make a whole, but the end result is a tremendously compelling, beautifully written, slightly imperfect book.

Collin is a tremendously talented artist who never felt like he belonged in art school. His preferred medium is chalk, and he's all too happy to create beautiful pictures and images to captivate viewers, only to erase them and start again. It's a philosophy he follows in life, too—nothing is really permanent. He's really biding his time, waiting tables, acting and designing in a theater company he and his roommate founded, and trying to figure out what the future holds.

When Nina walks into his restaurant, he's immediately smitten. A Harvard graduate who is teaching as part of Teacher Corps, she wants to dazzle her students so they love literature and poetry as much as she does, but she can't seem to reach them or get them to pay attention to her. Although it takes her a while to let her guard down with Collin, she loves how his creativity and fearlessness has awakened her, and she hopes her practical nature will inspire him to do something real with his artistic talent.

Nina is the daughter of a gaming and technology mogul whose video games are tremendously popular. His soon-to-be released game is revolutionizing the world of virtual reality, so in an effort to help Collin harness his talent in a practical way, she convinces her father to give Collin a try at his company, Arkadia. It's a move which energizes him but creates barriers—both real and artificial—in their relationship.

Meanwhile, Arkadia is using some slightly questionable marketing tactics to raise the anticipation for its newest game, and a student at Nina's school, Aidan, gets caught up in both the game's incredibly dazzling magic and the painful realities that his obsession causes. It could prove dangerous not only to him, but to his twin sister, Diana, a student in Nina's class, and others.

When I started reading The Chalk Artist, I couldn't understand why Goodman would want to muddy the waters of Collin and Nina's story with a completely unrelated thread about a teenage boy obsessed with virtual reality. But the more I read, the more I realized how this virtual world really served as a counterpoint to Nina's need for permanence and real reality, and there was so much more to this plotline than I first thought.

Goodman's writing practically sings when she describes UnderWorld and Collin's art. Her imagery really felt as if it would be right at home in any fantasy novel, and it was unlike anything I've seen from her work to date. While Collin and Nina's story is definitely one you've seen before (and depending on your personality, you'll definitely prefer one character over the other), it still is compelling, and you hope that neither will do something stupid.

Not everything works in the book—I felt that Aidan's sister was a little superfluous, and felt like the plot shifted back and forth a little too abruptly at times. But overall, I enjoyed this a great deal. I'm a big fan of books that embrace the power of dreams of all kinds. This book really solidified Goodman as a favorite author of mine, one whose deft hand has created some truly memorable characters through the years.

NetGalley and Random House/The Dial Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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