Despite a subtitle that clearly refers to James Joyce, Virginia Woolf echoes far louder in this novel within a novel following one day in the life of a 60-ish author of a fictional biography about the 18th-century portraitist of Marie Antoinette.
In contemporary Louisville, Ky., thrice divorced Kathryn Callaghan walks her newly completed manuscript over to Leslie, a musician and fellow writer with whom she’s been best friends since they grew up in Montgomery, Ala. African-American Leslie’s mother participated in the bus boycott. Leslie has recently moved to Louisville, and soon, Kathryn introduces her to another dear friend Daisy. Walking with her husband, Daisy feels a sense of danger when she notices a car drive by. Kathryn goes home and thinks about her beloved gay son, Humphrey, now living abroad, safe from his dangerous former lover. In the morning, Kathryn takes a walk with Humphrey’s father, Peter, her second husband. She thinks some more about her life, connecting deep emotions to literary references. She spends her day partially preparing for a possible visit from a potential new love interest, talking with her friends and contemplating her life in literary terms. Meanwhile, Leslie, along with the reader, is reading Kathryn’s first-person novel about Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, a fiction also heavily invested in analyzing what it is to be an artist. Kathryn’s somewhat stiff prose describes Elisabeth’s early childhood as an artistic prodigy, her difficulties after her father’s death, her unhappy marriage, her fortuitous meeting with Marie Antoinette, whom she defends as misunderstood, not unlike Naslund in her 2006 historical novel Abundance. Like Kathryn, Elisabeth’s love life never mattered as much as her art. But while Elisabeth and her only daughter became estranged before the daughter’s untimely death, Kathryn proves herself willing to go to any lengths to protect her perfect son.
Leslie’s compliment that Kathryn’s work is “lined with silken sentences” holds true for Naslund (Adam and Eve, 2010). Nevertheless, the tone of literary high-mindedness and self-importance grows wearing after a while.