In his poignant latest, Rachman (The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, 2014, etc.) examines a life dominated by someone else’s art.
Pinch worships his father, noted painter Bear Bavinsky, although Bear’s behavior amply justifies the warning of Pinch's stepsister Birdie, daughter of the wife discarded for Pinch’s mother, Natalie: “Everything’s always about his art....He doesn’t hardly care about his actual creations…the human ones.” By the time Pinch is 15 in 1965, Bear has moved back to America from Italy and on to a third wife and more kids (eventual total: 17). Stuck in Rome with the increasingly unstable Natalie, Pinch desperately wants to stay connected to his elusive father. Rachman perfectly nails the charm with which Bear cloaks his selfishness and keeps his needy son both at a distance and firmly under his thumb. Bear skillfully deflects Pinch’s plea to come live with him by saying it wouldn’t be fair to Natalie and passes a devastating judgment on the boy’s fledgling paintings: “You’re not an artist. And you never will be.” Pinch goes to college in Toronto, planning to become an art historian and write his father’s biography, and it seems this will be the story of an impossible parent destroying a vulnerable offspring, especially after Bear sabotages Pinch’s first serious love affair and Pinch winds up teaching Italian at a Berlitz-style language school in London. But the balance of power between them shifts over the years in Rachman’s subtle rendering. Bear’s reputation goes into eclipse, and he confides the unsold paintings in his remote French cottage to Pinch, whom he trusts to protect his legacy. The way Pinch claims some turf for himself while remaining entangled in Bear’s shadow leads to an ironic conclusion that also shimmers with love and regret. Pinch’s best friend and late-in-life lover, two of the novel’s many finely rendered secondary characters, drink a rueful toast to a man who refused to be anyone’s victim—except maybe his own.
A sensitive look at complicated relationships that’s especially notable for the fascinatingly conflicted protagonist.