By Siri Hustvedt
Simon & Schuster, 2014
To set the world ablaze is what ambitious artists want to do. Looking back over her life, how could Harriet Burden have failed? The artist in this story has ticked all the boxes; luck, hard work, a sense of where the market is going. What she lacks is the right gender.
That’s the premise that starts this satire about the New York art world. Short listed for the Booker Prize, it is at times laugh-out- loud funny, and at times so sad it makes you want to cry.
Gathered together by an “editor” who is writing about the artist, the novel’s chapters consist of parts of Harriet’s diary, the words of her critics, notes by her collaborators, and comments by her children and her friend Rachel.
To the outside world, Harriet has lived the good life. Born to an upper middle class family, she married a wealthy art dealer, had the requisite boy and girl, loved being a mother, has a grandchild and a delightful best friend. When the book begins, both her parents and her beloved husband, Felix Lord, have recently died. After a period of almost demented mourning, Harriet opens her large New York apartment to needy individuals. One is a young man called Phineas Q. Eldridge. Perhaps the Q stands for quirky. He is a sympathetic character. Harriet also attracts an admirer in Bruno, a man her own age who truly loves her.
But Harriet rages inside. She’s created art for years, in solitude. She’s had exhibitions but her work has been dismissed. Rather than giving her a helping hand, her husband’s position as a powerful art dealer delegitimized her work. Critics implied that she only received any notice at all because of his influence.
Harriet plans revenge. She negotiates with three males to pose as her alter ego, to claim as their own work three exhibitions of art she created on her own. Only with Eldridge is this a true collaboration and meeting of the minds. The other two men are basically frauds.
Hustvedt persuades us that the three pieces Harriet attributed to others are by far her best work. But like many women artists before her, Harriet made her point at the cost of her own identity.
Since we know from the beginning that this masked work was lauded and the pretend artists feted, I wondered at times where this story could possibly go.
Still, the climax came as a surprise to me and was as powerful as a sock to the gut. Yet like all good writers, Hustvedt had laid the clues like breadcrumbs throughout the story.
This is extremely skilled writing. I liked Harriet and responded to the other characters as I believe the author intended. I enjoyed the irony of a main character who always lived at the heart of New York cultural life, yet never felt accepted. But I did not quite get “Harry” as she refers to herself. Her behavior to her husband, parents and children is much too sweet and undemanding to convince me that she is really a smoldering volcano of resentment and self-hatred. The portrayal of Harriet’s relationship with her father is an attempt explain her self-defeating actions, her fury at not being truly seen or understood.
Still, Harriet’s vengeful scheme does not quite mesh with the personality her author created for her. Harriet is a cipher rather than a truly convincing literary character.
Could she be a vehicle through which Hustvedt has expressed her own rage? Has she created Harriet as a metaphor for women and for their treatment at the hands of a male-dominated cultural world?