Lisa Louie's Reviews > The Great Man

The Great Man by Kate Christensen
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Oct 05, 2009

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Read in September, 2009

Recommended to me by a very good friend, The Great Man by Kate Christensen was an enjoyable and quick read. A famous NYC painter who specializes in nudes, dies and leaves behind two families, that of his wife, and that of his mistress, and his famous but under-appreciated sister who is an abstract painter. When two different biographers come around to research the dead artist's life, old grudges and resentments rise to the surface and get aired. In the process, the reader has the opportunity to see through the eyes of four elderly women as they reminisce about past choices, critique the art world, and through the process of remembering the dead painter, becoming sexually reintegrated into the present moment in the winter of their lives. It is this last aspect of the narrative that I found the most believable and compelling; I don't think I will ever look at elderly women the same again. Like a fly on the gossip wall, I also enjoyed the portrayal of the NYC art scene and the author's imaginings into the mind of an artist as he/she attempts to realize a vision through their medium. The characters' discussions about art and poetry and how it related to a biographical life were engaging even if, at times, it felt like Christensen was showing off the spoils of her many cocktail party conversations in NYC.

By the end, however, the novel failed to convince me that the truth of the artist's life mattered more than the art that he left behind -- although I'm not sure if that was Christensen's argument. No matter what kind of sod/genius the artist may have been in his domestic life, his art--realized through the medium of women's bodies--still spoke to people in some kind of visceral way (or so they reported). I appreciated Christensen's attempt to juxtapose the enshrined "truth" about the women as depicted in the artist's painting, with the liv(ed/ing) truth of the women characters who were still alive to their bodies. I'm just not sure that she succeeded in arguing that this latter kind of truth is more important somehow than art's truth, the "Void" to which art points.
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