Robin Black: Life Drawing – Intimacy vs. familiarity

Another lovely station of the marriage-read binge I seem to be hooked on lately, Life Drawing – it’s all in the name – is a delicate painting of the relationships that make up a human being: marriage, parent-child relationship, friendship, all woven together here to create a nuanced picture not many authors can handle with this surprising grace. Robin Black’s cast of characters – all the major players of the intellectual field: a painter, a writer, an amateur painter, a teacher, two scholars – adds an extra flavor fans of Siri Hustvedt will surely appreciate.

This is the story of Augusta (Gus), painter, and her husband Owen, writer, who take refuge from the noise of the world and aftershock of infidelity in a secluded place they hope will heal the wounds of betrayal and give creative inspiration. Enter their new neighbor Alison, an amateur painter, Alison’s daughter Nora, an alleged Christian convert and fan of the cult literature Owen seems to represent, and all the complications that come with a new friendship at this age. On a funny side note, a line comes to mind from a dysfunctional-family sit-com, where the middle-aged father laments: “at my age, it is easier to make another kid than make a new friend”. Indeed.

Weaving a tapestry of all the emotional complexities of life, Black explores the intricacies and difficulties of love, unexpected friendship, fidelity, even grief, and we discover the unsettling reality (I wouldn’t call it truth) of the distance there is between intimacy and familiarity:

We always seem to be teetering on the edge of intimacy and then creeping back to the safety of something more familiar and more remote.

The conclusion was drawn with an elegant, but ambiguous brush. Sounding like a postlude to the actual narrative, the final few pages blurred the sharp contours one might expect to surround the story for a protagonist like Gus, who excels at painting with precision. The possible versions of events that came to her mind, though we do know what actually happened, are in fact the true lesson she learned: life, as it unfolds through and in our relationships, is not a fixed scenery that lends itself to precision drawing, it is not a collection of accurate details. The measurable facts, regardless of what they were, couldn’t have changed her relationship with her husband. The life they shared and built and rebuilt for themselves has sufficient space to accommodate all the possible versions, because what they had together transcends the quantifiable details. This heartrending ambiguity of life was what made this book a 5-star read for me, in spite of the characters I mostly disliked and the importance of the creative struggle I couldn’t resonate with.

Although it was difficult for me to relate to the characters (to the point of occasionally finding them irritating) because I think of the creative process more in terms of intellectual effort and less in terms of inspiration, the dramatic depth Robin Black plumbed made this a satisfying read even to readers with an uninterestingly traditional ethical mindset, like I am.

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