Florinda's Reviews > The Great Man

The Great Man by Kate Christensen
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Mar 30, 12

Read in August, 2008

The "great man" of the title of this book, painter Oscar Feldman, never actually appears except as a topic of other characters' conversations, since he's already dead when the novel opens. However, as we learn about him through the perspectives of the three very different women who were closest to him, I'm inclined to think we're probably getting a multi-faceted - if not necessarily objective - portrait of who he was.

Although the two writers who are simultaneously but independently working on posthumous biographies of Feldman are approaching their projects from different angles, they both need to rely on the same primary sources - Abigail, his widow; Maxine, his elder sister, also a well-known painter in a different style; and Claire "Teddy" St. Cloud, his attorney's secretary and Oscar's mistress for over forty years. None of these women are secrets to each other - but there is a secret that they've all agreed to keep, and which is potentially threatened by the biographical research in progress. A teaser rather than a spoiler: the secret does involve a body, sort of.

This is fundamentally the story of Oscar's women, despite the book's title, and I found them an engaging, if not always wholly likable, group. I don't often find myself reading novels in which the main characters are women in their seventies and eighties, and that was one element that kept me interested in The Great Man. Abigail, Teddy, Maxine, and Teddy's best friend Lila are all very vital older women - so much so that if the idea of senior-citizen sex makes you nervous, consider yourself warned.

The book is a PEN/Faulkner Award winner. Despite the highbrow connotations of its New York City art-world setting, it's not an intimidating read at all; I thought the writing was brisk and fairly witty, and the story seemed to move quickly. The characters were interesting and well-developed. It's a smart novel with satirical elements that I think give it a lighter feel than the author may have intended, but that lightness may be part of why I found reading it so enjoyable.
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