Goldberg (The False Friend, 2010, etc.) writes the fictional biography of a female photographer whose career is sidetracked by controversy surrounding intimate pictures of her young daughter.
The character Lillian Preston may initially remind readers of Sally Mann, whose photographs of her children created debate in the early 1990s. But Lillian’s story, which takes place primarily in the 1950s through 1970s, is singularly her own. After falling in love with photography at her Cleveland high school, Lillian dismays her doting but conventional parents by moving to New York City, lovingly portrayed in all its gritty glamour, to pursue her dream. For Lillian, photography is all-consuming, her camera an extension of her arm. But once Samantha is born, the result of a brief affair, Lillian’s artistic ambition becomes entangled with fierce mother-love. Quiet, easily ignored, Lillian’s forte is shooting unposed street scenes. Her obvious genius brings her critical notice (if no money) in the NYC art world until an avant-garde gallery owner is charged with “pandering obscenity” by exhibiting photographs of 6-year-old Samantha in her underwear, one taken while Lillian was recovering from an abortion and unable to go outside. Neither Lillian’s career nor Samantha’s childhood recovers—a case of every mom’s fear of screwing up writ large. The novel is structured as the catalog Samantha puts together for a retrospective of Lillian’s work at the Modern Museum of Art years after her death. Photograph by photograph, Samantha sets the scene through her memories of her deeply complicated relationship with her mother, recorded interviews with people who knew Lillian, letters from Lillian to others, and Lillian’s private journal. The collage of impressions and reactions creates a holistic portrait that also allows Samantha and more secondary characters, like Lillian’s high school boyfriend, to reveal their own complexities. Lillian herself—selfishly single-minded in her artistic drive but genuinely protective of her child and often desperately lonely—is both larger than life and thoroughly human.
A riveting portrait of an artist who happens to be a woman.