A small town is scandalized by the possibility of a racy entry in a local art show in Whitson’s debut novel.
Thirty-year-old Sarah Louise Upshaw’s life is a tableau of quiet mediocrity. She’s an art teacher in Sulphur Springs, Tennessee, lives at home with her parents, and is perennially single. Every year, she enters one of her paintings in the town art show, and every year, she wins third place at best and never manages to sell a single piece. The chairman of the show, town busybody Lucinda Hardin-Powell, tries to call Sarah Louise at home to see whether she plans on entering the contest again this year, but her mother, who’s inexplicably overwhelmed by anxiety, answers instead; she spontaneously announces the title of Sarah Louise’s offering as “A Room Full of Naked Men.” Sarah Louise is aesthetically committed to an uncompromising realism—she only paints what she can see—and so she’s compelled to recruit, with the help of her mother, five men to pose naked for her. (It’s never clear why she feels beholden to keep that title, however.) Some in the town, like Lucinda, are piqued by the ribald subject matter, but others, like the show’s curator, Huey Eugene Pugh, see the controversy as an opportunity to revive the event’s waning popularity. Meanwhile, Sarah Louise finally gets yanked out of her comfort zone. Readers in search of something lighthearted will find this to be a painlessly funny and sweet tale. Whitson has a keen eye for wholesome high jinks, and her family-friendly comedy achieves a sense of the ridiculous without a hint of darkness. The protagonist seems specifically designed to be blandly attractive—she only paints cats and flowers, and is incapable of producing an “emotionally draining painting.” Her companionably benign comportment, though, makes the novel’s premise hard to pull off, as there’s really no good reason to believe that her painting will be truly risqué. Also, the characters are generally formulaic; the depiction of Pugh, a flamboyant, campy gay man, seems especially shopworn.
This PG-rated comedic soap opera is innocuously pleasant but neither complex nor challenging.