Life for five-year-old Will Ryder is defined by a face left disfigured by fire. Though his English professor father and precocious sister comfort and support him, the mother who abandoned them all can never be forgotten. Growing up, Will believes that looking at him is what drove her away. When a psychologist urges him to explore his memory of the fire, he chooses instead to suppress its pain and trauma. Will takes up painting for both solace and a refuge from bullying at school, and finds a path that offers a different kind of struggle—to find his own identity as an artist and a man. His talent brings his mother, now a famous abstract expressionist, back into his life, and he discovers the real reason she fled from her family. Despite warnings from his father, he allows her role in his life to grow, leading to unexpected opportunity and a strange bond shaped by the artistic fires that drive them both. Struggling to develop his ability, he must choose between the philosophies and ideals of his two very different parents—the father who raised him with loving care and the mother who considers feelings and emotions only roadblocks on an artist’s creative path. Will’s talent grows as he acts out his anger. Struggling in the competitive art world of Chicago and New York, he desperately seeks his mother’s love and acceptance but instead must live with the only help she is able to give: subsistence money and the harsh counsel that has painfully shaped her own life. An artist’s true way, she insists, must be through adversity. A brutal physical attack that leaves his family in crisis, and an eccentric girl whose strange wildness he comes to love, help lead Will to a series of bold, cathartic, searingly honest self-portraits—embracing the face he's always run from.
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A graduate of Stanford University with a degree in English and of Northwestern University with a master’s in journalism, Michael French is the author of twenty-four books: adult and young adult fiction, art criticism, biographies, adaptations, and gender studies. His newest adult novel, The Reconstruction of Wilson Ryder, he views as a drama about America’s cultural values. French’s work, which includes several best-sellers, has been warmly reviewed in the New York Times and been honored with a number of literary prizes. A native of Los Angeles, he also is a successful businessman, activist, and, with his wife, Patricia, a philanthropist raising money for programs aiding teachers in Santa Fe, N.M., public schools, which are some of the most challenged in the country. They divide their time between Santa Fe and Santa Barbara, Cal.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From Chapter 3
When I was sixteen and kissed a girl for the first time, my reaction was the same as that morning in first grade. I didn’t wince or pull back in self-consciousness. I was filled with wonder as I stared in the mirror. Warmth flooded my chest. I felt like I was studying a piece of abstract sculpture: the distorted, slightly twisted lips―a collage of purple and pink; the pale, mottled nose that seemed to detach from my face and shimmer like an ornament; the misshapen cheeks, squared rather than rounded, melted almost to the bone by the flames and then left angled and sharp-edged by the surgery.
My chin looked almost normal, but the nerve damage had been extensive. I pressed my finger against the knob of flesh, but, like always, I could feel nothing there. For fun, I reached up and pulled on my ear lobes, which had somehow shrunk in the fire and were crusty with scar tissue. My best feature was my eyes, big and shiny, dark as mud, but alive.
Once I began studying my image, I couldn’t stop. It was as if I had encountered myself from another lifetime, through some magical passage of time, and in this unexpected rendezvous, I waited for the face in the mirror to tell me a secret. What journey had I been on? What had I seen and learned? What would happen to me next? I reached out and touched the boy in the mirror, expecting him to smile or frown at me in our special conspiracy. Instead, he was mute and stoical, watching as if waiting for me to share my secret. I had come into the bathroom to see what everybody else saw, but my surprise was finding something nobody would ever notice, no matter how carefully they looked. I saw a boy who lived safely behind the glass, protected from the world. Would he ever come out?
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