The Great Man by the Pen/Faulkner Award Winning author Kate Christensen was the July/August Planet Books reading club selection. It is the story of one man, deceased, and the amazing, complicated and loving women he surrounded himself with in life. Oscar Feldman was a “renowned figurative painter” who led multiple lives. One as a husband, another as a lover and a third as the famous painter who seduced his models with his hands and his paint brush.
“Oscar, Oscar, Oscar,” said Maxine. “Look at us, four smart old bags with plenty to think about, fixated on my putz of a brother, who’s been dead for five years and wasn’t especially nice to any of us.”
At first glance I wasn’t really enjoying this book but once I got to know the women in Oscar’s life, I was intrigued by the idea of forgiveness and tolerance that his wife, lover and even sister had for this unlikeable man who was nothing but a selfish painter who bucked the system on all levels. As I finally got over the hump and got into the book, I discovered that the characters where written so well that I felt they may be real people and that this was actually a biography of Oscar Feldman but in reality it is the event of two biographies being written about the painter that brings Abigail (wife), Teddy (the mistress), Lila (Teddy’s best friend), Maxine (sister), and numerous secondary characters together. In their golden years, these women dredge up the past as they tell not one but two individual biographers about their lives with Oscar. They discuss his work and I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the detailed descriptions of his approach to painting and the paintings themselves.
We meet Teddy first. The woman who Oscar carried on a forty plus year affair with that produced twin daughters. She at first is rough around the edges but once I got past some personal dislike for the writing style in the book, I was able to submerge myself into the New York City boroughs where the characters live and listen to their stories. At one point I felt that I related to Teddy the most out of all the female characters Christensen created. She is strong but was in total love with Oscar and supported him the best she could though she was never able to do so as the official women in Oscar’s life. Since Oscar’s death five years before this book begins, Teddy has moved from the large house she shared with Oscar and raised their daughters in to a small apartment that with time got away from her. Things piled up and the idea of taking care of business overwhelms in her old age. Two biographers have started calling to do research on the famous portrait artist, Oscar Feldman and Teddy finds herself entertaining both men over lunches at her residence and telling stories of life with Oscar, on the inside and on the outside.
The same goes for Maxine Fledman, Oscar’s sister and a successful painter in her own right but part of the abstract art world. She is a bitter old lesbian with many regrets and leftover feelings for two women in her life. Her ex-lover from thirty years ago and her present day assistant. Christensen wrote all the characters very well but Maxine was especially memorable. A perfectly described lesbian, full of masculinity and lust. Maxine was a tough woman with an even tougher personality that hid the tenderness and vulnerability at her core. The relationships she has with Teddy and Oscar’s widow, Abigail are very different. Maxine never cared for Teddy and always looked down on her for accepting the role of Oscar’s mistress. She doesn’t acknowledge Teddy and Oscar’s twin daughters, her nieces, but does steal quick glances of Ruby who happens to take her dog to the same dog park that Maxine frequents with her faithful companion, Frago.
Abigail was Oscar’s life long best friend and wife who cared for their autistic son Ethan. The relationship between mother and son drove Oscar to jealousy because it was Abigail’s attention he desired so to spite Ethan he would just ignore the boy when he actually spent time with his first family. Abigail is a lovely but timid character. At first I didn’t think much of her myself but I soon realized that she was able to tolerate the situation that had entered her life instead of interrupt the smooth waters that had become her life.
I asked my friend Nicole what her favorite points of the book were and I have to agree with what she said. “I thought it was neat to get each woman’s perspective and that they were told as parts of the book. It was the first time I read the first person perspective from such an older character and I felt that Kate Christensen did a really wonderful job with this book. Also, I thought it was interesting that after hearing the story being told through Teddy, Maxine and then Teddy’s eyes to end the book from the perspective of a complete outsider looking in and observing Oscar’s women. Henry, one of the two biographers who began to suffer form the same weaknesses that plagued the ‘great man’ himself. One last thing I really enjoyed about The Great Man was how Christensen compared her analysis between cooking and painting.” (You can listen to an interview with Kate Christensen on NPR HERE. She shares the fact that she actually tried the recipes she described in her book and that they were pretty good.)
As the story moves along the interviews between biographers and women creates a fear in Maxine that a huge secret may be unveiled. It is a major twist and with it the book took off and I finished it rather quickly. The Great Man surprised me after all and I enjoyed it after all. It gave great insight into the world of painters and the stresses they face in their line of work. Insecurities that plague them just like any professional.
What did you think of the book? Were you able to enjoy it? Which woman was your favorite, least favorite?