A novel about art and artists, occasionally engaging but plagued by flat prose and bewildering chronological gaps.
Orphaned at an early age, Sophie Marks is destined to become an artist. She is raised by her grandfather Eli, a portrait painter, and by her grandmother Claire, a poet, in the English Midlands. Eli is not just a dispenser of artistic advice and aesthetic theory but also something of a philosopher: “Some people…are so afraid of dying that they don’t live while they’re alive. Their fear of death overwhelms their desire for life.” Sophie grows up talented but also isolated—“odd, disjointed, and aloof.” During World War II, when she is in her 20s, her entire family, including her illegitimate son André, is destroyed during the German bombing, so Sophie begins afresh, with a new lover, the sculptor Luca Bondi, and a new life in Italy. As her life as an artist progresses and her love for Luca deepens, Sophie suddenly finds herself betrayed, for Luca, distraught by Sophie’s inability to have another child, takes a lover and secretly has the child he’s always longed for. The novel then skips over the next 28 years, a chronological blank in which we learn that Sophie—Georgia O’Keeffe–like—is now in her late 70s and living in the Southwest American desert, still preoccupied with artistic issues, still filled with the terror and excitement of filling up a blank canvas. Zackheim is intent on bringing the novel full circle, for the dénouement finds Sophie returning to her European home, reuniting with Luca’s son and, eventually though somewhat improbably, with Luca himself.
The book has a rather didactic feel to it (see Eli’s advice above), and Zackheim demonstrates a wooden ear for dialogue, which can read like a disquisition on aesthetics or soap-opera banter rather than the articulation of feelings from fully fleshed personalities.