An embittered female artist plays a trick on critics that goes badly awry in Hustvedt’s latest (The Summer Without Men, 2011, etc.).
An “Editor’s Introduction” sets up the premise: After the 1995 death of her husband, art dealer Felix Adler, Harriet Burden embarked on a project she called Maskings, in which she engaged three male artists to exhibit her work as their own, to expose the art world’s sexism and to reveal “how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art.” Readers of Hustvedt’s essay collections (Living, Thinking, Looking, 2012, etc.) will recognize the writer’s long-standing interest in questions of perception, and her searching intellect is also evident here. But as the story of Harry’s life coheres—assembled from her notebooks, various pieces of journalism, and interviews with her children, the three male artists and other art-world denizens—it’s the emotional content that seizes the reader. After a lifetime of being silenced by the powerful presences of her father and her husband, Harry seethes with rage, made no less consuming by the fact that she genuinely loved Felix; the nuanced depiction of their flawed marriage is one of the novel’s triumphs, fair to both parties and tremendously sad. As in her previous masterpiece, What I Loved (2003), Hustvedt paints a scathing portrait of the art world, obsessed with money and the latest trend, but superb descriptions of Harry’s work—installations expressing her turbulence and neediness—remind us that the beauty and power of art transcend such trivialities. If only art could heal Harry, who learns the risks of entrusting others with your own unfinished business when the third of her male “masks” refuses to play her endgame. She dies less than a year later (no spoiler; we learn this from the opening pages), and the book closes with a moving final vision of her art: “every one of those wild, nutty, sad things…alive with the spirit.”
Blazing indeed: not just with Harry’s fury, but with agonizing compassion for all of wounded humanity.