A biographer of artists reflects upon his long-term romantic relationships with his painter wife and her novelist brother in Atwill’s (The Galisteo Escarpment, 2008, etc.) novel.
One July morning in 2011, Graham Obermann is handling the final details for a scheduled birthday party that evening for his wife, modern artist Celia Prosper. People will expect him to toast Celia at the party as the love of his life, but “that is not entirely true,” he tells readers. “I love another one of the Prospers as much, if not more.” The novel then crosscuts between Graham’s party preparations and his history with the Prosper family, which began when he and Celia’s brother, Karl, shared an apartment during graduate school in 1960. Graham soon accompanied Karl home to the Prosper compound in Santa Fe, New Mexico (where Graham now lives), which was dominated by patriarch Wingrave Prosper, the first of many artists about whom Graham will write biographies. Graham marries and has children with Celia, but she accepts the fact that he spends his summers in Europe with novelist Karl, where the two men pursue a sexual relationship as well as their individual writing. Several tragedies punctuate the proceedings—Wingrave dies in a blaze that has roots in his parental transgressions, Karl experiences trauma from his stint in the Vietnam War, and other Prosper relatives tragically perish. A wrap-up at the story’s end reveals yet another shocking event and a new relationship. Santa Fe–based Atwill has crafted a colorful, complex novel. He presents his main character in the first person in its 2011 segments and in the third-person in all others; the result is a rich, prismatic portrait that touches on Graham’s musings on his own nuanced sexuality as well as his various studies of postimpressionist artists. He draws secondary characters and subplots less successfully, though; Karl’s appeal, for example, is more stated than shown, and Wingrave’s sins are worthy of further development, perhaps in a separate novel. Overall, however, this is an ambitious, beautifully rendered effort.
An intense, impressionistic exploration of art and sexuality.