“Nobody outside a marriage can understand it, everyone agrees. As if people inside a marriage can.” This observation from Gus, the female narrator of Life Drawing, at first seems a casual complaint. But it’s actually the argument that underpins the book: abandon all hope, ye who enter here. You can spend your whole life in a marriage and still not see how it works.
Luckily, writers such as Robin Black can certainly wring drama from the attempt. Gus and Owen are married, middling artists: Owen a critically acclaimed but underread author, Gus a visual artist who cannot do portraiture. They have fled Philadelphia for a farmhouse in a deliberate bid to punctuate the “before” and “after” of their relationship: before and after Gus undertook an affair.
In the country, they begin to rebuild trust, but art, particularly Owen’s art, remains unsettlingly absent – until Alison, a woman with a past, moves in next door. Ensconced in a damaged marriage undergoing slow repairs, any new arrival is viewed as potential threat. But what Gus and Owen eventually come to understand is that an unwelcome intrusion might be their only chance.
The best parts of Life Drawing are its finely mapped cartographies of the emotional dangers inherent in all relationships – perils familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time with anybody else, and found themselves invested in the outcome. It sounds banal, but rarely are these dangers so thoroughly charted, particularly because the story is told from Gus’s point of view. Gus views herself as a humiliating cliché: “The only thing you are allowed to take from an affair is wisdom. You can’t say you are glad you did it or had moments of joy, but you can say that you learned a lot from your mistakes.” The novel is full of queasy observations such as these, at a rate of roughly one flinch per page. Black examines the wounds sustained through the act of wounding someone else.
This debut novel by a seasoned author of short stories is partly billed as a thriller, though if a suspenseful drama, it isn’t Gone Girl. But it does deliver a sucker-punch ending that twists the whole preceding narrative – a lurching finish that gains its power from being sharp and brief. As a painter, Gus is always aware you can’t see the landscape you are in. By the novel’s end, she’s in a sadder place than this:
a landscape she can see, but cannot fix. CR
Scribe, 256pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 10, 2014 as "Robin Black, Life Drawing". Subscribe here.