Things to like about The Sidewalk Artist

{ Tuesday, January 8, 2008 }

One of my book club books this month is The Sidewalk Artist, by Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk. It's a romance set primarily in Italy; the main character, Tulia, is a woman of moderate but informed intelligence and very little angst in her mid-twenties who has a strange affair with an artist while researching an idea for a historical novel about the painter Rafaello.

Here's what I like about it.

  1. It doesn't pretend to be more than it is. It doesn't pretend to teach me all about Renaissance art or Italian life or what it's like to be a woman in her mid-twenties in the mid-2000s. It's a story about a woman's attraction to a man and about her attraction to her writing. It's about being twenty-five and on your own and innocent and unharmed in Italy.
  2. It's co-written. By two people who, judging from the jacket photo, inflicted no lasting physical damage on each other in the process. Maybe it's an old photo.
  3. Its material allows it to evoke three things: being a woman in her twenties, being on a holiday in Italy and France in good weather, and being in love. It gets a blue ribbon on the first two. Clean writing, skillful choice of details, mix of the sensual and the subjective. It gets a white ribbon on the third. Tulia's adventure is very like something that would happen to an independent, smart, uncynical twenty-five-year-old, one decision leading to the next until she is involved in something beyond what it promised. But I'm not sold on her loving this man and needing to be told she's loved.

It's escapist romance, and it's done well, with a light, even tone, suffused with happiness, wonder, and an appreciation of beauty.

In Tulia's world, nobody is poor or sick and it's really not that bad a thing to live off her boyfriend's income though she's stopped loving him. In her world there is no racism because everyone is either white or what you might call "exotic" and in any case affluent and well-educated. Because she has no real worries -- no dying parents (only misunderstood ones), no concern about her future -- she can tell a story about careless adventure and a focus on art. She can tell a story free of responsibilities. She gets everything she wants.

And I identify with her. I know exactly what it's like to be that twenty-five-year-old, and they nailed it. But here's the thing. When I'm sixty, I don't want to read a book about a forty-year-old woman who lives completely untouched by chronic pain or by other people's problems and identify with that woman. I also don't want to read that book and sniff at it dismissively.

So out there, if you write that book: don't let it pretend to be more than it is.

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