There are certainly authors to whom I have remained intensely loyal who have written one book I absolutely loved but have also written others that I didn’t. And because I read the book worth loving first, I kept them on my roster of excellent authors despite the downfalls and shortcomings of other works. So this week I decided that just because I had read two books by an author neither of which had particularly wowed me or stuck with me didn’t mean I should dismiss the author out of hand; that perhaps she was worth one more go.
The author to whom I refer is Diane Chamberlain. I first read her book The Dream Daughter, about which many people expressed doubts since time travel was not something they felt was appropriate to her oft-labeled “hometowns and heartstrings” style of writing. Since I love a good time travel book, however, this was prime motivation for me to read it, and I did enjoy it, although not as much in retrospect as my initial reaction might indicate. So I went on to choose another of her books, hoping to get the “traditional” Diane Chamberlain experience, and was vastly disappointed; I didn’t connect with (or even like) any of the characters, felt the narrative was lackadaisical and the plot deficient in sense, and decided, based on Cypress Point, that I wouldn’t read anything more written by her.
But, as sometimes happens, I had placed another of her titles for Kindle on hold at the library a while back, and it popped up as “available” just when I had finished something else and was at loose ends for the next, so I read it. I’m so glad I did, and can say that it may change my attitude about at least some of the rest of her inventory.
The book is Big Lies in a Small Town, and I must confess, first of all, that I was predisposed to like it, despite my previous experience, because this one was about art. As regular readers of this blog can attest, I have special collections on Goodreads of “books about art” and “books about reading,” and am always looking for another to add to those lists. I found one in this book, and also found it compelling for more reasons than just its theme.
First of all, this book also steps outside that “hometowns and heartstrings” narrative and into the realm of historical fiction, although I’m not sure how much of it is real and how much made up. The point is, it all could have happened, and its setting in a true-to-life context, especially including the financial situations and the state of race relations in a small southern town in the 1940s, made it particularly evocative.
The book has two main protagonists, one in 1940, the other in 2018, connected by a Work Progress Administration (WPA) mural painted after the Great Depression by one artist and restored almost 80 years later by another. Anna Dale is the artist from New Jersey who enters a WPA mural contest; she loses out to someone else for the mural she wished to paint in New Jersey, but is instead awarded a smaller project for the post office in Edenton, North Carolina. She takes a trip to scope out both the community and the placement of the mural, planning to stay only a few days to try to capture the flavor of the town and its people upon which she will base the mural but, being somewhat at loose ends in her life with no employment or attachments to prevent her, allows herself to be persuaded by the town’s “movers and shakers” to stay in town to execute the entire project. She soon realizes she is a fish out of water, a Yankee not used to dealing with the prejudices and ubiquitous racial undertones of a small Southern community. And to complicate matters, the town has its own artist who tried for the same assignment and lost out to Anna, so there are some people in town who are already predisposed to dislike her. Anna is determined to achieve her goal, but vastly underestimates the obstacles she faces.
Nearly 80 years later, in 2018, Morgan Christopher, who is in prison for three years for a crime she didn’t commit, is given an opportunity to curtail that sentence if she agrees to certain conditions: Jesse Jameson Williams, a prominent artist from Edenton, North Carolina, has died, and in his will he specifies that Morgan is to be offered the job of restoring a mural that will hang in the gallery containing his paintings and those of his protegés. Morgan is an artist but has no experience with the complex skills required for restoration, but she is desperate to leave prison, so she accepts and is paroled contingent upon her completing this project. In the process of working on the mural, she discovers disturbing design elements that pique her interest about the unknown fate of Anna Dale.
This story was masterfully plotted to keep the reader turning the pages. The perspective switches back and forth between past and present with a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter to make it irresistible, and Chamberlain is wonderfully cagey about how and when she reveals the plot points that connect all the players. I read it in two days, and when I say days I mean until 2:30 a.m. when I could no longer keep my eyes open. In addition to complex plots for both time periods, the narrative contains interesting technical information about the restoration process as well as fascinating personal details about life in the South after the Depression. It addresses such issues as mental illness, injustice, poverty, and racism, but incorporates those themes into its riveting and emotionally engaging story line without being preachy or didactic.
Can you tell that I liked the book?
Reading this made me immensely curious about the WPA mural program; here is a look at some of the artists who were defining American art “after the fall,” that is, after the Great Depression’s socioeconomic devastation, and here is an interesting contemporary speculation on whether anything similar to this project could ever again happen in the United States. Below is one mural, by artist Ben Shahn, entitled “The Meaning of Social Security.” It’s on a wall of the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building, in Washington, D.C.
A little “if-then” referral: If you read this and find that you enjoyed learning about the technical processes of restoration, another book you might enjoy is The Art Forger, by B. A. Shapiro, which also includes many fascinating technical details, although it is much less respectful of the original artist! My review is here.