Kate Christensen

"The Great Man"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew MAY 16, 2008)

Some "great books" are a chore to read. They ooze pretension, incomprehensibility or characters who sit stillborn on the page. The Great Man is a great book with none of these or other common hurdles.

Kate Christensen's absorbing novel deploys two competing biographers to conduct interviews with the family and friends of famous painter of female nudes, Oscar Feldman, five years after his death at age 78. Both the married, WASPish Henry Burke and the single, black Ralph Washington quickly discover their interviewees are not above turning the tables and peppering them with personal, invasive questions; making for lively, wide-ranging, and delightfully natural conversations.

The Great Man propels itself forward via the biographers' visits to Oscar's mistress of forty years, Teddy, and her fraternal twin daughters by him; his older sister, Maxine, who is also an artist but one of less notoriety; and his one and only wife, Abigail, and their autistic son who still lives at home. Charmingly, great portions of the book are devoted to showing the reader these women's lives, thoughts and feelings with nary a biographer in sight. The irascible Maxine finagles (consciously or unconsciously, that is the question) a balancing of artistic accounts with her renowned brother. Independent Teddy weighs the pros and cons of starting a new love life. And quiescent, intuitive Abigail barters unflinchingly for a softball version of her wayward husband's life.

First, after an obituary of Oscar, the novel devotes a "Part" to each of the three ladies. Then Part Four allots each a chapter, concluding with a chapter that visits them each briefly again. Finally, Henry and Ralph meet at a Feldman art retrospecitve and compare notes, followed by a book review of both of the fruits of their respective labors. It is a flawless presentational structure that flows easily and permits the reader to luxuriate in a string of exceptional conversations. The Great Man doesn't make the mistake of isolating the characters and withholding a cathartic convocation. The women, mobilized by an Oscar Feldman secret, all gather at a propitious juncture and have it out!

The Great Man, then, isn't really about philandering, demanding artist Oscar, but about the women who supported him. Teddy, Maxine, and Abigail -- and those who people their lives -- appear irresistibly real. Christensen is truly gifted as a creator of imaginable characters and scintillating, crackling dialogue. However, Oscar's status as catalyst rather than primary subject did seem a missed opportunity while reading the capping book review. Quotes from people we didn't meet in The Great Man and the single slippery line from his journal about a model he "deflowered:" 'She was like a newborn suckling fawn, still wet with amniotic fluid,' spurred regret that Henry and Ralph's biographies aren't actually available. But The Great Man has every right to "leave them wanting more." The novel delivers such a sumptuous banquet (no exaggeration, as food, lovingly described, intimately pervades many a scene) that only the edacious, the gluttonous, would not feel replete.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 18 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Great Man at Random House

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About the Author:

Kate ChristensenKate Christensen was born in Berkeley, California in 1962. She graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, picked up a master of fine arts degree at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She then moved to New York but felt that she wasn't ready to write -- that she needed to live a little first.

Her essays and articles have appeared in various publications, including Salon, Mademoiselle, the Hartford Courant, Elle, and the bestselling anthology The Bitch in the House.

Christiansen won the 2008 Pen Faulkner Award for The Great Man.

She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband.

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