Nobody outside a marriage can understand it.
In This LitStack Rec:
Life Drawing, by Robin Black
“Nobody outside a marriage can understand it,” the narrator of Life Drawing tells us. In Robin Black’s first novel, Augusta Edelman is a painter, a newcomer to the Pennsylvania countryside where she’s lived her husband of two decades, Owen, a writer. Augusta—Gus—is a painter, and the new setting will hopefully provide quiet for their work, but Own has just died, and things in the marriage were complicated.
The novel moves back in time to recount events, and we learn the move wasn’t just about quiet time, but motivated by Gus and Owen’s desire to distance themselves from a troubled period two years before when Gus had an affair with the father of one of her painting students.
All stories are ghost stories, so it’s said, and for Gus, the past returns in various ways, and the tone in Life Drawing is one of a confession. Both motherless, and childless, Gus never quite connects with those she loves. The childhood loss of her mother, and the death of a beloved sister, Charlotte, in middle age, weighs on Gus in the form of emptiness—in everything, including her marriage. Later, once Gus is alone, she tells us,
I’d always doubted that Owen understood that slightly standoffish manner of mine, the motherless part, the part that didn’t know what to with Alison’s arm in mine as we walked.
Alison is Alison Hemmings, a transplanted Brit who moves in nearby and produces the novel’s inciting event.
Repairing a House and a Marriage
Owen or Gus both have blind spots: “Neither of us acknowledged that our move had anything to do with my infidelity two years before.” Yet Gus’ affair haunts the marriage, and the couple tries to heal the wound through home improvements. Opening the walls in the course of a remodel, Gus discovers World War One era newspapers, and intrigued, uses the obits of young soldiers as subjects in her paintings, while Owen spends his days in their stone barn, hoping to break through his writer’s block by working on a new book.
Gus and Alison become friends, and one of the pleasures of Life Drawing is the way Black portrays the friendship that develops between them. The intimacy takes place in increments: taking walks around the couple’s pond, shopping at the farmer’s market, paying calls on Gus’s father in a nearby nursing home. The women bond through talk—over dinners and wine on the porch. An intimacy forms that take them from social chat to confessions of the intimate sort, and Black beautifully achieves this in in true-to-life pace.
The women’s friendship is tested with the appearance of Nora, Alison’s daughter. She’s a beautiful writing student who’s also a devout Christian. Nora develops a crush on Owen, and on visits home begins spending days with him in the stone barn, reading his manuscripts and shoring up his bruised ego. Gus understands that Owen might retaliate with his own affair—and makes this novel a page-turner.
“The betrayer doesn’t get much sympathy,” Gus admits. Yet, in Life Drawing, the portrait is one of a woman who fiercely loves the husband she’s lost, and never manages to reconcile their divide.
About the Author
Robin Black, the author of a collection of stories, If I Loved You I Would Tell You This and Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing and Life Collide, is an emotionally precise writer whose powers of observation, both inwardly and of the xterior world, are acute. When Gus tells us, “I sometimes think of visual details as deep, private pools of water into which I dive alone,” the description could well apply to Black’s prose style as well:
This is the precision for which I strive. Some kind of commitment to accuracy, my belief that the appearance of a thing can flow right through me and out to another set of eyes. And not just the appearance, but the beauty to be found—even in things not inherently beautiful.
Recently from Robin Black
Fans of Robin Black have a new release to add to their reading lists. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Bookmarked, was released in 2022. It’s a deep dive into reading, and being sustained by, Woolf’s classic novel. From the publisher:
In this deeply personal volume, Robin Black writes about Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a book she returned to again and again when she began writing at nearly forty and found herself gaining a sense of emotional stability for the first time in her life. For two decades, Mrs. Dalloway has been Black’s partner in a crucial, ongoing conversation about writing and about the emotional life. Now, Black takes a deep dive into both the craft of the book, what a writer might learn from its mechanics, and also into the humanity to be found on every page.
This title is part of IG Publishing’s Bookmarked series of literary criticism.
~ Lauren Alwan
Other Books By Robin Black
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