In Peale’s debut, a young woman slowly disentangles herself from the famous artist she’s been “assisting” by painting his canvases for seven years.
Such arrangements are understood, though seldom openly acknowledged by denizens of the high-powered, morally slippery New York art world, in which Emma Dial’s status is based on her relationship with her boss, Michael Freiburg. Emma, 31, whose brown hair turned silver at age 20 after her beloved grandmother died, fears that there’s truth in her censorious art-historian mother’s assessment of her abilities: She’s technically skilled but has nothing to say. So she keeps working for Michael and occasionally having sex with him, though he’s married and considerably older. It seems safer than the career path of her best friend Irene, a gorgeous filmmaker who’s always starting projects and abandoning them. Yet Emma misses “the sensation that I was in the thick of creating,” and the flirtatious attentions of Michael’s friend and rival painter Philip Cleary prompt her to slowly reassess her life. Very slowly, which is a problem with Peale’s sharply observed but peculiarly structured text. It’s difficult for readers to be patient while Emma smokes and seethes for a good three-quarters of the story, with little in the way of plot except various encounters with old friends that underscore how aimless she is. Also, although Emma tells us that Michael “lent me importance at a time when I felt I had none,” all we see him give her is grief and overbearing instructions about how to paint “his” artworks. The novel improves considerably in the final 75 pages, which include an ugly confrontation with Michael and a subtly sketched portrait of Emma’s evolving connection with Philip. It seems at first that this will prove to be another exploitive relationship with an older, more powerful and famous man; instead, the optimistic closing chapter shows him willing to accommodate her growing self-confidence.
A more energetic, swiftly paced narrative would have strengthened this portrait of an artist coming into her own, but it’s a promising first effort.