Get local news delivered straight to your phone

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

The title character of Kate Christensen’s new novel is Oscar Feldman, a reasonably renowned painter whose career consisted of painting nothing but the female figure. Five years after his death, two men are writing separate Feldman biographies, and each of them approaches the important supporting characters in the artist’s life: Feldman’s wife, Abigail, his abiding mistress, Claire “Teddy” St. Cloud, and his stalwart sister, Maxine, who’s also a painter (to her immense displeasure, a less celebrated one than Oscar). The biographers’ visits inevitably stir things up, and Maxine and Abigail, who previously avoided Teddy at all costs, soon agree to an armistice so they can discuss what should remain off the official record of Oscar’s life. Christensen’s characters, all of whom are in their 70s or 80s, are written with surprising clarity and vivacity. Abigail is an oft-two-timed wife who was fully aware of her husband’s many infidelities, not to mention an entire second family—Oscar and Teddy had twin daughters. But she’s not the meek traditionalist one might expect. Teddy is independent, capable, and still sexual. (When meeting the first biographer, Teddy laments internally that she had hoped for someone “fun to banter and flirt with, not this twerp in rumpled khakis.”) And Maxine, though perpetually irritated, is ambitious and hilariously honest: When an acquaintance asks how she’s doing, she replies, “Old age is nothing but a big drag. Do everything you can to stave it off.” And as the women begin to abide by a more permanent truce, they, thankfully, do not resemble in any way a literary rehash of The Golden Girls. It’s easy to root for these women, to sympathize with them in their lonelier moments and to celebrate as each of them begins to flourish anew. The Great Man is entertaining and smart, at turns poking fun at the pretentious art world while including compelling insights into feminism and old age. Teddy, for example, laments, “Isn’t it strange…to be at the end of your life, to feel you have so much more life in you.…But you won’t get it. The body gives out. I feel as if I were ready to start all over with someone.…This feeling reminds me of youth. But youth is gone.” It is strange to periodically realize that Oscar, the sun around which the women orbit, is never truly present. But though the premise of the biographers is an effective (if slightly contrived) way to prompt a discussion of Oscar’s influence, Christensen unfortunately never clearly explains what was so forgivable about Oscar—who, by most accounts, was a selfish, womanizing schmuck. Christensen makes it clear that, in Oscar’s case, the cliché about a great woman being behind every great man is true several times over. His greatest achievement, she argues, may not have been his artistic career but that he managed to sustain relationships with these brave, generous, whip-smart women who would have done just as well without him. As Teddy tells one biographer, “Oscar had no fear of women’s power; he thrived on it. He got off on how strong the women in his life all were.…That’s where his strength came from. He went right to the source, and it always flowed.”