Life Drawing by Robin Black

life drawingI just can’t pass up a novel about art and artists.

Especially if the cover art features a broken paintbrush which has left a streak red paint (cadmium red medium?) across the cover, hinting at some kind of danger or menace. How intriguing.

Life Drawing by Robin Black (Random House US, July 15, 2014) is an astutely psychological novel about a troubled marriage between an artist and a writer. Seeking to escape the city, Gus and Owen buy a country home where she can turn the back porch into an art studio and he can use the stone barn for a writer’s retreat. Sounds idyllic, romantic even? Hardly.

From the very first line you know the husband will be dead by January: “In the days leading up to my husband Owen’s death, he visited Alison’s house every afternoon.” Gus is narrating, and what a multi-layered voice she has: remorseful, restless, thoughtful, haunted and sad. She quickly lures you into the mystery of her misery.

It is not a question of what happened to her husband, but how and why. The mystery is even more beguiling because Gus is just barely coming to understand it herself. Gus tries to explain: “as one of my teachers used to say, you cannot see a landscape you are in.”

And what a complicated landscape she’s in. Even before the new neighbor Alison moves in, Gus and Owen are having a rough go. Gus had an affair a couple of years ago, and they’re still sorting things out. As Gus says, the betrayal was “a lingering presence in our lives, a taunting little goblin in the shadows, daring us to call him out.” Her husband suffers from writer’s block, and Gus believes that she is to blame for killing his creativity. In contrast, Gus’s imagination is sparked by old newspapers she finds in the farmhouse and she is both enthralled and challenged by her work on a new series of paintings. Owen is irritated and Gus feels guilty. But still she escapes to her studio and paints.

Chances are that you will soon be convinced, like I am, that Gus is utterly real. Even the paintings on her walls come alive, complete with their own backstory. One in particular captivated me. There is a painting above the fireplace, Owen’s favorite, a painting Gus made in an old millinery shop in Philadelphia. I’d love to know where Robin Black got the inspiration for that fictional painting, maybe . . . here?

tissot milliner's shop

James Tissot, The Shop Girl, from the series Women of Paris, 1883-85, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Or here perhaps?

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop ca. 1882-1886, The Art Institute of Chicago

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop ca. 1882-1886, The Art Institute of Chicago

Just knowing that Gus had spent weeks sketching and painting in a millinery shop, looking past the vivid hats out to the dingy gray of a February streetscape, and somehow doing a pretty good job of it – good enough to hang the completed painting above the fireplace anyway – made me admire her as an artist. Was it the subconscious pull of art history that was drew her to the same kind of place as Tissot and Degas? Or did Gus just need a warm sheltering place to change hats after her affair was finally over?

I found myself wishing that Gus could stop by my own  studio some time, have coffee, and talk about art. Maybe we could take a life drawing class together at our local art league. Gus struggles with the human form; she’s not a natural portraitist. She’s just not that good with people.

Poor Gus.

Such is the talent of Robin Black. She makes her characters live and breathe and entangle  you in their world. I care deeply about Gus. It’s been about a month since I finished an advanced copy of the book and I’m still wondering how she’s doing.

Trust me, you won’t be able to put this book down until you learn how and why Gus’s husband died. Life Drawing is a beautiful literary book with deep personal insight and edge-of-your-seat suspense. Without a doubt, one of my favorite reads this year.


–Margie White is a former bookseller, an avid reader and a painter of limited talent but unlimited enthusiasm.


A gathering at Printers Row Litfest (from left to right): Jenny Offill, Sue Kowalski, Rebecca Makai, Margie White and Robin Black

A gathering of fans and authors following a panel discussion at Printers Row Lit Fest, June 2014 (from left to right): Jenny Offill, Sue Kowalski, Rebecca Makai, Margie White and Robin Black



The Hadley Hemingway Tour

American women just love The Paris Wife. Perhaps we’ve read Moveable Feast or maybe we just heard the buzz through our book club, but it seems we just love getting the scoop on Ernest Hemingway through the eyes of his first wife Hadley.

As most readers seem to have heard by now, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books 2011) is about Ernest and Hadley Hemingway’s brief but passionate years together in Paris in the early 20s. Ernest Hemingway was a charismatic and gifted writer, the genius of his generation, but he was also a narcissist, a cheater and a big drinker. No one better to deal the dirt than the first wife.

 In addition to The Paris Wife, there’s an excellent nonfiction book about the same years called Paris Without End by Gioia Diliberto (Harper Perennial 2011). One of my favorite authors (she’s also written I Am Madame X, The Collection and A Useful Woman), Diliberto’s nonfiction format  allows us to know more about Ernest’s developing affair with Pauline Pfeiffer than Hadley did at the time, back when Hadley was in the dark – or in denial, or a little of both. Diliberto is also able to compare the fictional events and characters in Hemingway’s stories to the real stuff going on in his life, which is a real bonus if you’re familiar with his work.

Whether you prefer the fictional drama in The Paris Wife or a more thorough nonfictional approach in Paris Without End, you’re sure to enjoy some of these Paris photographs, depicting scenes from both books. You can’t find a better Paris walk than the neighborhoods of the Latin Quarter, St. Germain and the Luxembourg Gardens. You can follow along on a Google Map here.

Ernest and Hadley moved into this apartment, at 74 rue du Cardinal-Lemoine in a working-class neighborhood of the 5th arrondissement in January, 1922. It was a two-room flat on the fourth floor without hot water or a private toilet. Hadley later said that "the apartment wasn't ghastly. In fact, it was kind of fun." She remembered that "The steep winding staircase had a niche on each flight for a step-on-two-pedals toilet."

The shop with the green awning below the Hemingways' window was once a loud and popular dance hall called Le Bal du Printemps. Ernest described it as a "noisy, rough music hall and hangout for sailor, whores, 'apaches' (French gang members) and American expatriates, who nicknamed it 'Bucket of Blood.' "

Ernest Hemingway rented an attic apartment in this building at 39 rue Descartes from 1921-1922. It served as his getaway and writing studio, and was just around the corner from his apartment with Hadley.

The plaque on the building at 39 rue Descartes giving recognition to Ernest Hemingway, although it does not appear that Hemingway continued to rent the studio after 1922.

Hadley and Ernest left Paris in August 1923 to have their baby "Bumby" in Toronto. When they returned in January 1924, they found another fairly shabby apartment at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. It was a carpenter's loft over a working sawmill. The sawmill was torn down long ago and was replaced with the uninspiring school buildings that you see today.

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The front door of the Les Blés D'Ange bakery at 151 Bis boulevard Montparnasse. Just like Ernest and Hadley, I cut through myself and stopped to buy a croissant, which I enjoyed on a bench right outside the bakery.

Ernest had no separate writing studio while they lived in the sawmill loft, , so he spent hours at the nearby café, La Closerie des Lilas, 171 boulevard du Montparnasse. You can go there today and try for the seat with the Hemingway plaque.

While Ernest worked away at Closerie des Lilas, Hadley and little Bumby would escape the apartment and go to the nearby Luxembourg Gardens. I could picture little Bumby trying to scramble around on this old tree, which certainly looks as if it would have been around in 1925.

Hemingway tended to embellish the extent of his and Hadley's poverty during their Paris years. Ernest claimed that he sometimes killed pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens and brought them home to eat. Hadley said that wasn't true.

The site of Hadley's first post-separation apartment at 35 rue de Fleurus near boulevard Raspail. The building was torn down and the address is now a part of Alliance Française. Hadley and Ernest separated in August 1925 after it became clear that Ernest's affair with Pauline Pfeiffer would not just die out. When Ernest and Hadley first separated, he stayed in a studio loaned to him by Gerald Murphy on rue Froievaux, and Hadley stayed in the Hotel Beauvoir on avenue l'Observatoire. In October 1925, Hadley and Bumby moved in their solo apartment, which was only two doors down from Gertrude Stein.

According to Gioia Diliberto, Hadley couldn't bear to go back to their sawmill apartment, so Ernest made several trips with a handcart in order to deliver her things to her on rue de Fleurus. He is said to have pushed the handcart "weeping down the street."

Ernest and Pauline marry in May, 1926 and move into a posh apartment on rue Férou, a quiet street that leads down from the Luxembourg Gardens into Place Saint Sulpice.

Ernest and Pauline's home at 6 rue Férou, which was paid for by Pauline's uncle. According to Gioia Diliberto, it was "lavishly furnished with antiques by the bride." Pretty obvious that Ernest is no starving bohemian anymore. Nevertheless, Hadley continued to have a friendly relationship with Ernest and Pauline, and often sent Bumby to stay with them here.

I would never have been able to piece together this Hadley Hemingway tour without the help of Walks in Hemingway’s Paris: A Guide to Paris for the Literary Traveler by Noel Riley Fitch, which I highly recommend. This guide is incredibly complete, and includes walking tours of Saint Germain, Montparnasse, L’Odeon, Hemingway’s Right Bank and more. I can’t imagine a better way to explore Paris.