'The Great Man' was a not-so-great husband and father

A novel explores the real and secret families of Oscar Feldman.

When Oscar Feldman died, he left behind a reputation as an iconoclastic painter of abstract female nudes and enough emotional baggage to fill the Titanic. Five years later, his two families – the legitimate one everyone knew about, as well as a longtime mistress and twin adult daughters – are still grappling with his loss.

Now, two competing biographers are courting the widow, Abigail Feldman; the mistress, Teddy St. Cloud; and the sister, Maxine Feldman, a lesbian abstract artist who never enjoyed the kind of fame her brother gobbled up as his due. (Readers learn quickly that Oscar's sense of entitlement, both professional and personal, was mammoth.) Kate Christensen ("The Epicure's Lament") details each woman's relationship with Oscar and how they just might finally escape his clutches in her new novel The Great Man.

In order to keep the biographers from finding out a secret that could damage Oscar's artistic reputation, all three women get together to talk for the first time ever. In a conversation that should be the heart of the book, they engage in a "nice little volley of long overdue spats and tantrums," as Teddy puts it. Unfortunately, the timing of the dialogue feels off – too falsely chummy or too patently angry, depending on the speaker. Much better are the times when Christensen writes about the New York art world, which she does robustly, especially during a dinner party rendered hilarious by Maxine's gruff commentary. And there's a generosity to her writing, in that she's unwilling to leave her heroines trapped by bitterness or grief.

That helps, because the dueling biographers conceit never fully takes off, primarily because Christensen doesn't invest a lot of emotion or pages in them. And Christensen devotes almost as little time to Oscar's children as he did. Teddy's adult twin daughters, whom Oscar neglected as blithely and thoroughly as he did his legitimate autistic son, get only one scene each to detail the kind of damage done by a selfish father and a controlling mother.

Possibly because of this, the fairy tale plotline Christensen grants Teddy rang particularly hollow with me. Despite Christensen's skill, it comes off as chick lit for septuagenarians (provided the septuagenarians have an ear for explicit obscenities and frank depictions of sex).

Maxine, however, in all her cranky, jealous glory is a wonderful creation. She hypothesizes that she's the only one who saw her brother clearly, without "the haze of sex" he seemed able to throw over any woman. "Look at us, four smart old bags with plenty to think about, fixated on my [jerk] of a brother who's been dead for five years and wasn't especially nice to any of us," Maxine snorts ruefully.

Abigail, who, after one experience, flatly refused to let her husband paint her again, also saw Oscar clearly. In fact, the times when Oscar rings most true is when one of the women is detailing his faults. Take Teddy's summation of Oscar to biographer Henry Burke (whom she dubs "a twerp in rumpled khakis"): "He was like a grocery man with three barrels of pickles, an apron, a roll of waxed paper, and a nose for excellent meat. He painted like a grocer…." What Christensen doesn't make clear is how he was able to hold two smart, opinionated women like Abigail and Teddy in thrall for decades. When Abigail says, "Oscar never brought me a flower. Oscar brought me his laundry," you believe her. When she says that she and Oscar were uniquely suited and that she wouldn't have married anyone else, you don't.

Christensen's attitude toward "The Great Man" himself can best be summed up by a fictional critic whose review ends the novel: "This female book reviewer couldn't help wishing Mr. Feldman had moved over and given his real-life women a little more room." Over the course of "The Great Man," Christensen helps them carve out that space for themselves, and it's in her compassion and humor toward these three women that "The Great Man" finds its value.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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