Kate Christensen's fourth book, The Great Man, is reminiscent of that particular breed of novel that can only be weaved and welded by a true artisan: where the setting is discreet yet perfectly suited to the occasion and where the characters jump out of the confines of their hardback dwelling and linger with the reader long after reading has ended.
The Great Man is about art and, more specifically, abstract expressionism, which plopped out of the art-world womb in the Forties and incited conflict among artists eager to join the abstract camp and those content to paint in the style of realism. The story is preceded with the obituary of a fictional New York painter named Oscar Feldman, who devoted his life to the female body. Portraits of beautiful young women with highlighted labia, swollen nipples, and eroticized lips hung in the big-time museums the world over. A well-known womanizer and vehement critic of abstract expressionism, Feldman gluttonously bedded nearly all of his subjects, signing each portrait with a stroke from more than just his brush. Only five years following his quiet demise, two rival biographers different in style, personality, and motive begin interviewing Feldman's past loves and family in order to chronicle the life of such an inspiration, such a great man.
Actually, though, The Great Man has nothing directly to do with Feldman and everything to do with his favorite subject, women, in particular his wife, sister, mistress, and mistress' best friend, who are all complex, round characters. While the men in this story remain static and limited in their understanding of love and art, these seventy- to eightysomethings blossom toward the end of their lives, finally finding comfort in their own ripe, wrinkly skins. And in a step outside convention, Christensen adorns these women, not with canes and arthritis medication, but with lust, sex, foul language, a taste in the finer things, independence, and courage. At times, this romanticized portrayal of the elderly feels just that: romanticized. But, unlike Feldman's stubborn insistence to limit art in meaning -- "The female body is the ultimate expression of truth and beauty" -- Christensen is not one to prevent her abstract paint from occasionally seeping into her realist india ink. And what a fine blend.
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