Life Drawing by Robin Black
Random House, 2014; 240 pp
Reviewed by Courtney Craggett
Robin Black’s Life Drawing opens with a quotation from Victor Hugo: “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.” The epigraph felt familiar, and I soon remembered a similar line in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “if one loves anyone, one loves the whole person, just as they are and not as one would like them to be.” The theme of love is certainly present in Life Drawing, but the book is reminiscent of Hugo and Tolstoy in other ways too. Just as Hugo gives each of his characters complex and rich biographies, and just as Tolstoy can bring out the wonder and extreme emotions of even a single baby’s birth, Black has a way of taking life’s ordinary experiences and filling them in with nuance and complexity.
Life Drawing’s plot is simple, narrated by Augusta after her husband’s death. Augusta (Gus) and Owen, a painter and writer, respectively, move to an old farmhouse in the country to escape the affair that still haunts their marriage. There they live in an enviable state of isolation, although the affair’s effects still linger. Owen, for example, suffers from writer’s block, and the list of subjects banned from conversation grows longer each day. The couple’s solitude is interrupted when a new neighbor moves next door, bringing a grown daughter and her own troubled history with her. The results threaten the fragile peace that Gus and Owen have fought so hard to achieve.
The plot’s simplicity, though, only serves to highlight how complex even ordinary lives can be. Much of what I love in this book is what I love in nonfiction: the narrator’s careful reflection, the layered pasts that creep into the present, the sense that each character is formed by so much more than what occurs at any given moment. There’s Gus’ loss of her mother, then her loss of her sister, then her husband’s infertility, and finally her affair. Before all of that, though, her father has a story that he is only now beginning to tell. Gus and Owen’s new neighbor has a history too. There’s even history in the walls of the farmhouse – old obituaries of soldiers crumpled up for insulation that Gus decides to paint into scenes: playing chess in her living room, lounging at her kitchen table. History piled upon history piled upon history, and it all converges in the story Gus tells of her husband’s final months.
Also like nonfiction, Life Drawing offers the pleasure of two protagonists. The first protagonist, the widow, narrates the story. She begins by saying, “you cannot see a landscape you are in. But you do begin to see it when you step away.” The second protagonist, the younger Gus, is still planted firmly in the landscape of her guilt. She often reacts emotionally, spurred by shame and fear that Owen will retaliate. Like most of us, she thinks one thing, and says the other. Her missteps and impulsive actions lead to the book’s tragic ending. The narrator, though, pieces everything together. There is a delight in being in the presence of someone who thinks like this. She is able to recall a specific moment in her past – the isolation she felt as a child on Parents’ Day at school without a mother, for instance – and explain how that shaped the woman, wife, and artist she would become. The narrator is the one who reminds us, the audience, of the complexity and challenge of being human. She reminds us that everyone carries a past that inevitably returns.
The second epigraph in Life Drawing is a quotation from George Eliot: “Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” This is perhaps the true and heartbreaking message of the book. That the past is never really gone. That even if we try to forget and we refuse to discuss it, like many of Life Drawing’s characters do, it can creep back at any moment to affect and disrupt the lives we have built. The past haunts every page of this book, just as the soldiers in the obituaries haunt the farmhouse in Gus’ paintings. In Life Drawing, then, Black has created a world that is painfully familiar, and she has shown us, beautifully, the difficulties of trying to live in this world carrying the weight of our history.