Spending, by Mary Gordon

>> Friday, May 11, 2007

TITLE: Spending
AUTHOR: Mary Gordon

PAGES: 301
PUBLISHER: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: Nope, not that I know of

REASON FOR READING: It was recommended by one of the posters at the AAR message boards, Sherryfair (where is she, BTW? Haven't seen her post in a while, which is a real shame, as I always enjoyed her posts). She mentioned it as literary fiction that might appeal to romance readers.

Monica Szabo, a middle-aged, moderately successful painter, encounters B, a wealthy commodities broker who collects her work. B volunteers to be her muse, offering her everything that male artists have always had to produce great art: time, space, money, and sex..

PLOT SUMMARY: Monica Szabo is a 50-ish painter living in New York. She's a good artist and her work has been well received, but she's not successful enough to have the time and space she needs to really devote herself to her art. A lot of her time is spent making a living, teaching art at a private school. She does like that job, but nevertheless, would like to be able to work on her art without constraints.

During a presentation at a friend's gallery, Monica rhetorically laments that women don't have their muses, as male painters have long had. Where are the men ready to take over all those mundane concerns, giving the female artist the freedom to worry about nothing but her art and making no demands on her?

Well, right there in the gallery, apparently, because a rich commodities broker named B comes up and offers himself for the post. He admires Monica's work, and not being an artist himself, he's interested in involving himself in art by helping make things happen. If Monica agrees, he'll provide all she needs to be able to concentrate exclusively in her work.

B is also very attracted to Monica herself, and since she finds him just as attractive, their personal relationship ends up being an important part of their deal.

MY THOUGHTS: I loved this book, mostly because Monica is an amazing character and her way of looking at things was so interesting and unique. She's not a "nice" character, being pretty self-absorbed and brusque, but she's one who is always compelling.

The most interesting aspect of Monica is that's she's an artist, and she's very believable as such. This is not what she does, it's what she is. It affects her whole outlook, the whole way she perceives the world around her. Not that I can judge if it's like this in reality, not being an artist myself, but Gordon did succeed in presenting Monica as someone whose mind works in a way completely alien to mine in regards to this.

I found myself wishing I understood art much better than I do, seeing Monica's thought processes and the way she focused on certain details of paintings. And I also enjoyed her thoughts on the value of art, which is one of the themes of the book.

Something else that I think makes this book so good is Monica's relationships with her family and friends. I guess I've developed an image of literary fiction that's somewhat in line with that recent column at AAR. Maybe it's unfair, but I tend to expect "dysfunctional" when it comes to family relationships. This was very definitely not the case here. Monica has a good relationship with her daughters. Not a saccharine-sweet "perfect" relationship, she's not a selfless paragon of a mother, but one who relates to her daughters as adults and clearly loves them and is loved back. She also has a beautiful, warm relationship with her sister, Helena, completely free of the almost expected envy and resentment.

And then there's the romantic relationship. Now, that's what I don't usually look for in literary fiction. Most times it feels as if authors are afraid of really tackling a good romantic relationship. If it's a dysfunctional one that makes both characters miserable, then they can dig in, but if it's a good, solid relationship, then it usually feels undeveloped. They just won't go into how and why the characters fall in love and what makes their relationship good. Fear of critics calling them mawkish, maybe? Who knows, but it's a fear Gordon doesn't seem to have, because the relationship between Monica and B turns out to be excellently done, and yes, it's a good relationship!

It's also a fascinating one that is very definitely not traditional: their deal said Monica was the artist, B was the muse, and that's exactly how it works. It's all about Monica's needs and her work. B's promised he'll cater to them, and amid much doubt and soul-searching (can she really do this? doesn't it make her a whore to sleep with a man who's paying her rent, even though he'd be paying it even if Monica wasn't sleeping with him?), she takes him on his word.

The rigid roles do become more relaxed as the book progresses, and they start relating more as people, and less as simply "the artist" and "the muse", but it's all done without indicting Monica for having dared to behave as male artists have always done. This is a most feminist book, and it doesn't betray itself in this. In the end, B and Monica's relationship is still not "traditional" but it's warm and satisfying, and it's one that works perfectly for both of them.

MY GRADE: An A-. I'll be looking for more books by this author.


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