"Every artist leaves behind a shadowy retrospective exhibition of the pictures that were never painted," begins this tale of the good, the bad, and the untalented. But what do the artists present at the private viewing of the late John Crane's last paintings sense of this "shadowy retrospective"? Among those attending are Lyris, Crane's widow and a painter herself; her grandnephew Nathan, a boorish conceptual artist; Clovis, a middle-aged bookseller; and Zoe, a beautiful young filmmaker. None of them realize it, but the evening will forever alter their lives. The Artist's Widow is a novel about the nature of friendship, betrayal, courage, and cowardice.
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Many adjectives have been applied to the work of Shena Mackay, but sentimental is not one of them. The Artist's Widow is a fine example of Mackay's brand of acerbic storytelling--who else, one wonders, would have the chutzpah to end a novel with the death of Diana, neatly skewering popular sentiment about "the People's Princess" with her title character's dry remark that "we're in danger of genuine grief being whipped up into something ugly." Indeed, the line between genuine feeling and its ugly counterfeit is the underlying theme of Mackay's fifth novel, and she sets the tone right from the start as she plunges us into a retrospective of the work of recently deceased artist John Crane, attended by his friends and family. Chief among these are Lyris, his widow, also a painter, and Nathan, his great-nephew, an artist-poseur long on posturing and woefully short on talent. Lyris, who nurses no illusions about her relation, remembers him "as a little boy at a family party loading his paper plate with cocktail sausages, chocolate fingers, gherkins, cake and crisps until it collapsed, and with white powder on his nose at her husband's funeral." Nevertheless, she harbors a fondness for him. Nathan, on the other hand, regards her as an "old bat," but is willing all the same to suck up to her, his eye always cocked on the main chance. Eventually he manages to convince Lyris that there's a real bond of affection between them--an illusion that nearly costs her everything.
But Lyris is not the only character suffering from delusions; there is Nathan's ex-girlfriend, Jacki, and Lyris's middle-aged and frustrated friend Clovis. There is Clovis's ex-wife, Isobel, and his current girlfriend, Candy. There is Nathan's crowd of unsuccessful artist-wannabe friends and his grasping parents, Buster and Sonia--all suffering in various degrees a disconnect between what is real and what they'd desperately like to believe. Mackay masterfully mixes and mismatches her creations and leaves them with at least as many loose strings dangling as ones that have been tied up. Readers looking for an uncomplicated happy ending, beware: the worldview expressed in this gleefully black domestic comedy has far more in common with Evelyn Waugh's than Jan Karon's. --Alix WilberAbout the Author:
'Mackay sees "eternity in a plastic flower and the human condition in the brittle pink Little Princess Vanity Set in the supermarket" - junk not changed, but momentarily backlit, in moments of joy and pain' Guardian Shena Mackay has written fifteen works of fiction - novels and short stories, including The Orchard On Fire which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1995. She lives in Southampton where she is writing her memoir. Now all of her novels and short stories will be published as Virago Modern Classics
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Book Description VINTAGE, 1999. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 009928782X