Guzeman’s debut examines the impact of a dissolute artist’s self-absorption on already fractured families.
When Thomas Bayber, scion of a wealthy family he’s disappointed with his painterly ambitions, runs into the Kessler sisters during a 1963 summer vacation, he unknowingly seals all their fates. Beautiful but resentful Natalie, 17, and budding ornithologist Alice, 14, are both immediately smitten with Thomas, who, while sketching the Kessler family, insouciantly but not unwittingly pits the sisters against one another. The narrative shifts to 2007. Thomas, a world-renowned painter-turned–alcoholic recluse, has summoned to his musty Brooklyn digs the remnants of his entourage: Finch, an aging art history academic, recently widowed, who has been supporting the bankrupt Thomas for years, and Stephen, a marginally autistic, 30-something art appraiser whose career was scuttled by his Tourette’s-like honesty. Unveiling a portrait that is potentially worth millions, Thomas sets Finch and Stephen on a quest: The portrait, based on that long-ago Kessler sketch, is part of a triptych: There are two other panels out there somewhere…but where? In further flashbacks, we learn that Alice has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis since 1963; that she had a brief assignation with Thomas that resulted in a pregnancy and the theft of a valuable porcelain grosbeak; and that Natalie, charged with Alice’s care after their parents were killed in a car crash, resorted to some heartless expedients. Among these were spiriting her sister and herself from their childhood Connecticut home to a tiny Tennessee town. The true reasons for this dislocation will emerge as Finch and Stephen, whose feuding phobias make for entertaining road trips, traverse the country in search of clues. The whereabouts of Alice’s lost child (who Natalie said died at birth) is only one of the melodramatic elements that pile up like crash debris as the story lurches to its credulity-straining, redemptive close.
At times burdened by overblown prose and the weight of its own ambitions, this novel exhibits, particularly in characterization and dialogue, glimmers of genius.