Book Review & Book Club Discussion ~ The Great Man by Kate Christensen

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?

Sunday Salon ~ August 17th, 2008

How did I get here already!  It just seems like I was posting a Sunday Salon two days ago, not seven!  I’ve been a reading fool this past week.  I read I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephanie Kuehnert and I absolutely loved it.  You can check out my review HERE.  I am also running a giveaway contest for two signed copies of Anisha Lakhani’s debut novel, Schooled, until tonight, Sunday August 17th at Midnight EDT.  You can check it out and enter HERE.  I will be using Random.org to select the two winners and Anisha will be personalizing them as well as mailing them.

Planet Books has also been graced with guest posts from two authors this week.  Marcus Sakey’s new novel, Good People, just came out in stores on Thursday, August 14th and he stopped by to talk about his book and what he’s reading this summer.  You can check it out HERE.  Also, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties author, Jessica Anya Blea wrote a laugh-out-loud guest post for Planet Books.  You can read it HERE.   

As you may have noticed this month is flying by.  Hell, the summer must not have happened because I can’t believe it’s almost over!  How many of you are taking part in Planet Books’ July/August book club and reading The Great Man by Kate Christensen?  Well, I’ve finally gotten around to picking it up and to tell you the truth, it isn’t grabbing my attention like I hoped it would?  Have you finished it yet?  What did you think or what do you you think so far if you are reading it last minute too?  I will continue to try to get into The Great Man but I am curious if I’m the only one struggling with this book?

If you aren’t reading The Great Man, then what are you reading today?  Anything good?  Anything I should avoid?  Please let me know.  I love being nosey and checking out what y’all are reading!

And The Winner Is…

… Lori Barnes!! 

The Great Man

Lori, you have won a copy of the Planet Books July/August book club selection, THE GREAT MANby Kate Christensen.  We will be discussing this book on this blog during the last week of August.  Lori, I will e-mail you today to get your information. 

Everyone, thank you so much for submitting your name for this giveaway.  Remember that we still have one more giveaway running right now.  It’s for Ellen Baker’s KEEPING THE HOUSE and the contest will conclude this Friday at Midnight, EST.  You can check it out and submit your name HERE.

Giveaway ~ The Great Man by Kate Christensen

           This Giveaway Has Concluded!

              The Great Man

Today I had the pleasure of hanging out with Planet Books member and fellow Okinawa resident Nicole (lostinbooks) and she generously offered me her finished copy of the July/August Book Club title, The Great Man in case I knew anyone who wanted to read it.  If you have been meaning to pick up your own copy to read for our virtual book club but just haven’t found the time, well one of you may be in luck.  I am offering this lonely copy as a giveaway!  Just leave your name in the comment section of this post and I will draw a winner using Random.org on Monday, July 28th.  So that means you have until Midnight EST on Sunday, July 27th to enter to win.  Remember that the Planet Books book club is now bi-monthly so you still have the month of August to read The Great Man by Kate Christensen.  I have my copy on my TBR shelf and will be getting to it soon.

And The July/August Book Is…

                                   The Great Man

THE GREAT MAN by Kate Christensen winning with 64% of the vote!  Thank you to everyone who voted this time around.  Just to remind you what this PEN/Faulkner Award winning novel is about here is the summary:

THE GREAT MAN~ “Oscar Feldman, the renowned figurative painter, has passed away. As his obituary notes, Oscar is survived by his wife, Abigail, their son, Ethan, and his sister, the well-known abstract painter Maxine Feldman. What the obituary does not note, however, is that Oscar is also survived by his longtime mistress, Teddy St. Cloud, and their daughters.
As two biographers interview the women in an attempt to set the record straight, the open secret of his affair reaches a boiling point and a devastating skeleton threatens to come to light. From the acclaimed author of The Epicure’s Lament, a scintillating novel of secrets, love, and legacy in the New York art world.”

What did you vote for this time around?  Was it the winning title or another?  Will you read The Great Man after voting?  Will you read it if it even though it wasn’t the book you voted for?  What other challenges or book club selections will you be reading this summer?  Please let us know!