Thursday, November 5, 2020

Book 258: Paint It Black



"She felt like old people who forgot what shoes were for, each gesture calling meaning into question—unbuttoning a button, breathing. Movement slowed to half-speed, quarter speed, as if the air had thickened. She could take nothing for granted, her hand on her shirt, her ability to keep the floor underfoot."

Dates read: August 29- September 3, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Although most people, when asked what kind of baby they're hoping for, will say "a healthy one", I suspect most actually have a gender preference. I think a lot of people hope for the same as themselves...if you're a lady, it's probably easier to think about raising a girl, and vice versa. And I think others think about the ease of raising. I've heard that girls are "easier" until they hit the teenage years, and then boys are. And then there's the idea that while girls "leave" your family eventually to start their own, boys are always a part of their parents' family.

It's this last, I think, that often drives the stereotypical tension between wives and mothers-in-law. But there's a difference between the usual case of being a bit possessive of one's little boy, and emotional enmeshment that's unhealthy. In Janet Fitch's Paint It Black, Josie Tyrell is intimidated by her boyfriend Michael's mother Meredith. She hears his stories of the way Meredith kept him close to her after his parents got divorced when he was a child, and the world he grew up in as the son of a leading concert pianist who traveled the world is wildly different than the one she grew up in and ran away from, on the wrong side of the tracks in an industrial city in southern California. They meet in Los Angeles, where Josie's working as an art model after dropping out of high school, and Michael goes to escape the Harvard education he never really wanted. They fall in love, rent a house together...and then Michael commits suicide.

His death comes at the very beginning of the novel, and over the course of its 400 pages we get the story of his relationship with Josie, and with his mother, as well as the two women's gradually intensifying connection after he's gone. It's tempting for Josie to play along with what Meredith wants, to give in to the ease and glamour of being a replacement for Michael. But there's a sense of a fly being drawn into a spider's web. Paint It Black is a study of grief, and the ways even the ones we think we share everything with remain mysterious to us, and the power of narcissists to prey on the vulnerable. 

Clearly the relationships between mothers and daughters are something Janet Fitch finds compelling, as it was the focus of her big hit White Oleander and is explored in its own way here, with Josie becoming a kind of surrogate daughter to Meredith, who upgrades her from Michael's girlfriend to his fiancee for an air of legitimacy. The terms of this particular relationship, ostensibly between adults although with Meredith holding all the money and most of the obvious power, is an unusual one, and I thought Fitch wrote Josie's grief well enough that we could understand and empathize with how she becomes ensnarled in it. Speaking of writing, it's really the star of this book. I was constantly tabbing passages to come back to, that captured a feeling in an interesting and new way. It's lush and rich and evocative.

It could have used some editing, though. The book's biggest issue is that it's simply too long for the amount of material it actually has. It feels like it drags in the middle because it's just Josie mourning, and drinking, and taking pills, and being unable to help herself from being in contact with Meredith even though she knows she shouldn't be. And while I did very much enjoy the writing, it did at times feel circuitous and self-indulgent. The characters are not as well-developed or interesting as those in White Oleander, so if you're picking up this because you loved that, be prepared for a less fully realized novel. It's got merit, and if it seems interesting to you it's not a waste of your time to pick it up, but it's not a must-read.

One year ago, I was reading: The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Two years ago, I was reading: In Defense of Food

Three years ago, I was reading: La Belle Sauvage

Four years ago, I was reading: The Queen of the Night

Five years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

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