A college student masters drawing and learns to love in this debut novel.
Ingo Carmel, 17, moves to Rochester, New York, from Madrid to attend college in 1966. Focused on art, he quickly bonds with fellow student Shelley James, who is auditing the same drawing class. Slightly older at age 22, she embodies the spirit of the era to Ingo: “Shelley was one of those sixties denizens acutely aware of the rumblings under the social fabric of American life.” They quickly become involved, with Ingo often losing himself in romantic reveries that cause him to reflect on a lecture from a class and draw parallels between artistic techniques and navigating new relationship terrain. A free spirit, Shelley drifts off before committing to Ingo and eventually lands in New York City. She invites Ingo, who has lined up a summer position painting scenery for the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, to move in with her. Much of the summer is spent experimenting with all types of drugs, particularly hallucinogens: “For Shelley, nothing mattered more than pumping a maximum out of right now.” Finally, the distraction from his art and Shelley’s noncommittal attitude drive Ingo to return to Madrid. He then redirects his passion and is admitted to the Riverrun Academy of Art outside of Detroit. He flies there through New York, giving him one last chance to cross paths with Shelley and reevaluate whether he made the right choice. Mahdavi’s ambitious narrative offers an imaginative premise and many rich details about artists, their inspirations, and the ’60s. Unfortunately, the story becomes dominated by dry drawing theories, including waxing for two pages about whether an HB or 2B pencil would be the right choice for a sketch. The novel is sometimes more art textbook than romance. Ingo’s thoughts are always consumed by art rather than love, and the prevalence of internal monologues results in little dialogue between the two lovers. Their relationship lacks enough context and emotion to invest readers in their romantic arc and whether it succeeds.
Art lectures override the stirrings of a young man’s first love in this uneven romance.