A New York interior designer has a close but tumultuous relationship with his mother’s cousin, a bipolar sculptor, in Bergman’s (Small Ironies, 2011, etc.) novel.
Billy Duncan has already achieved great success at the age of 26. He’s a sought-after interior designer who’s currently renovating a Greenwich Village townhouse for an affluent client. Out of the blue, his mother asks him to meet her cousin Feyhe, a woman 30 years his senior whom he’s never met. He’s seen a few photographs of her, though, and the family describes her as “a legend, a myth, a semi-saga, really.” She’s a highly regarded sculptor who reigns over her dinner parties like an empress. As a fellow artist, Billy is drawn to her, but it turns out that Feyhe is volatile, unpredictable, and prone to fits of temper; it soon becomes clear that she suffers from bipolar disorder. Billy feels indebted to her because she’s family and because of client referrals, but dealing with her intense moods proves difficult. Meanwhile, Billy becomes romantically involved with named Joe, but he’s a vice cop—a risky choice of lover, particularly in 1970s New York. Nevertheless, their relationship blossoms and they move in together. Feyhe secures a commission for a feminist sculpture in Korea that falls under local government suspicion; she then arranges to move her Korean friends, the Kim family, to the United States. Bergman’s weighty novel is often compelling, and it works best when he is describing how Feyhe can be both a force of nature and a gradually unfolding tragedy, particularly as her mental health deteriorates. Bergman describes the character’s ups and downs in a series of stories that can be as piquant as they are harrowing. Billy handily represents the wonder and the cynicism of life in Manhattan through the years; however, if he’s intended to suffer from bipolar disorder, as well, it’s never fully fleshed out. The novel is too slow-paced, overall, but its portrayal of complex, unique relationships is impressive.
A rewarding, if somewhat overlong, novel about unexpected family ties and the pain of mental illness.