The lives of an artist and the owner of one of his paintings become intertwined in Bullington’s debut.
On her ninth birthday, Danielle Rivers receives an unusual present. Her Aunt Marguerite’s gift, Work of Life, is not a self-help tome, but, rather, a painting-in-progress by teenage art prodigy John Westchester. John has contracted to add to it once per year, on Danielle’s birthday. Initially, John, a sullen, stereotypically spoiled son of privilege, doesn’t think a kid can appreciate his work. When Danielle first meets John, on her tenth birthday, he’s rude to her family and barely interacts with any of them. Soon enough, however, they both grow up. The clever device of the growing painting gives the story real momentum, as Danielle and John’s annual meetings are chronicled through alternating points of view and the artwork gains new, sometimes confusing elements. But the uneven prose prevents a satisfying exploration of the characters’ emotional complexity: As a child, Danielle strains credibility, and the overwritten egomania of John’s early story kills any hope for nuance in his redemption. Over the years, Danielle copes with her sister’s illness, an abusive boyfriend, her father losing his job and her family’s financial woes, which delay her college matriculation. She also develops a crush on John. But in the fine tradition of rich playboys everywhere, John gets involved with a string of inappropriate women. After losing a friend to AIDS, he spirals into depression. When he finally emerges, he begins to confront his troubled past. As he becomes a better person, the tension between Danielle and John grows, finally coming to a head when Danielle decides she wants him to paint her in the nude.
An interesting idea underdeveloped. The story suffers as the prolonged separation of the protagonists prevents them from sharing a truly complex interaction.