Life Drawing by Robin Black, review by Bruce Jacobs
One might think that a marriage between two self-aware urban artists and academics unencumbered by children would be, if not always happy, at least fun and enriching. But no marriage, no matter how enlightened, traverses decades without plenty of zigzags, bumps and ruts.
Augusta "Gus" Edelman, the 47-year-old narrator of Robin Black's quietly thoughtful first novel, is a modestly successful artist and teacher. Her husband, Owen, has published a few well-received but sparsely read small-press books. They are mostly content in their shared life, until Gus has a brief but intense affair with the father of one of her students. Life Drawing is Gus's story, not only of her marriage and regrettable infidelity, but also of the untimely death of her young mother when Gus was a toddler, the loss to cancer of her oldest sister and closest confidante, and the increasing dementia of her father as he slips along a path of escalating nursing-home care. The creative impulse of her art sustains her, even when "what seemed unimaginably exhilarating gets bogged down... and then it is work. Then it is hard."
After he learns of Gus's affair, Owen is willing to hang on ("There's always hope... even if unwarranted"). They use a small inheritance to leave the city and purchase a farmhouse with separate space for their work and enough isolation from friends and former distractions to attempt to repair their marriage. As Owen wrestles with his writing and carefully managed anger, Gus excitedly tackles a new multicanvas art project. When an attractive divorced 50-year-old woman rents the farm next door, her unexpected intrusion disrupts their solitary rural retreat with social dinners and conversational walks. Visits by the divorcée's beautiful aspiring-writer daughter and physically abusive ex-husband tragically shake the fragile balance of Gus and Owen's marriage.
Black (author of the story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This) probes the vicissitudes of a mature marriage with an understanding of the effort it takes to make one work. She knows what Gus found boringly routine, "the sex that's like the decent enough music you listen to because the drive is so long and it's the only radio station you can pick up." She grasps cuckolded Owen's frustration when he calmly tells Gus, "I just can't imagine life without you. Not at this point. But I am so f**king angry at you. Do you get it that I'm too angry even to sound angry?" Finally, as Owen takes leave of Gus to work in his barn office while she paints in her studio, Black captures what might be the uneasy heart of a long marriage: "It isn't joyless. You aren't joyless... we aren't. But we are a life's work, aren't we? We are a universe. You and me. Our own f**ked up, beautiful, inexplicable universe." That may not be much, but in a world of irrevocably broken marriages, it may just be enough.
Bruce's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.