"I've read too many novels. I haven't lived enough of life," says the timid and bookish octogenarian Abigail Feldman as she tells about her marriage to her husband, the great artist Oscar Feldman. Beginning with a newspaper obituary on him, Christensen's The Great Man paints Oscar as the self-absorbed, narcissistic and totally egotistical artist that he once was.
Driven by the desire to uncover their beauty, women for Oscar were the ultimate expression of truth and splendor, and he painted them as complex and earthy, and never idealized or purely sexualized. Oscar, however, was also a womanizer and a hedonist, and throughout much of his life he left a trail of emotional wreckage behind him.
Central to The Great Man
are the three women who orbited much of his life. Oscar's mistress, the
glamorous Claire "Teddy" St. Cloud, ultimately thought of Oscar as the "biggest
human baby in all of history" and spent much of her life propping up his over-inflated ego. Once a prestigious secretary, Teddy now spends most of her days reminiscing with her best friend, Lila, and feeling mostly "like a well-worn old leather handbag."
Teddy's mind is packed with memories and subtle truths about her life with Oscar, so she's a bit wary about what she might say to Oscar's two new biographers, Henry Burke and Ralph Washington, who are nosing around Oscar's family and friends and stirring up the pot in hopes of getting information about him for their respective books.
While Teddy willingly admits that she never really grieved for Oscar - she just went on after he died
- Oscar's wife, Abigail, is now a cloistered, aging widow, left to care for their severely autistic forty-year-old son, Edgar. Life for Abigail is about books and regret (she once had planed to get a graduate degree in literature and become a professor) and the sudden realization that, although she loved Oscar, he wasn't really the type of husband that she could have wished for.
Meanwhile, Maxine, Oscar's aging lesbian sister (and by far the most fascinating character in the novel) holds an unexplained grudge against Teddy. For years, Maxine has ignored Teddy's daughters.
When asked why, she says she just chalks it up to a complete lack of interest; she also views Teddy as "that little husband thief" who ended up being so controlling of her brother.
A long-thwarted ambitious person who tends to be suddenly much nicer when she gets the attention she feels she deserves, Maxine is a truculent, bitter, bombastic old maid who was once an artistic rival to her brother. When Teddy suddenly wants to reconcile with Maxine after so many years of this unofficial "cold war," Maxine remains adamant that nothing of the sort will ever take place.
Kate Christensen cunningly skewers each woman's point of view as they try to set the record straight, and in the process paint a picture of a quick-tempered, explosive, passionate man who was not as nearly as smart as he thought he was, had a puffed up opinion of his own intellect, and had no idea how limited he really was. Of course, when the unexpected suddenly comes to light among the living, the inevitable confrontation takes place, and the sticky web of Maxine's long-held grudge is gradually revealed.
As with her earlier novels, Christensen's strength is in her ability to present fully fleshed and flawed characters while also imbuing them with such a witty and sardonic intelligence that it is impossible not to admire them even when they are not particularly likable.
We know from the start that Maxine is tired, embittered and somewhat resentful of her brother's fame, and that over the years Teddy has enjoyed her independence and freedom, but also regrets Oscar's lack of definitive commitment to her. Meanwhile, poor Abigail has spent the latter half of her life aching for the small moments of comfort and security even as her feelings about Teddy, besides a natural and uncontrollable jealousy, have mostly been about curiosity.
Containing a mélange of astute observations on the New York art world and presenting a wry and quite cynical look at the power of love and the balance of authority in relationships, The Great Man absolutely brims with verbal dynamics as these three "holdovers" from Oscar's wild life must face some inevitable truths about him, even when it sometimes becomes just too painful for them to acknowledge.
This novel is about the larger-than-life artistic ego as these "four smart old bags" with plenty to think about offer up a continuum of brittle, acerbic judgments on each other, while continuing to fixate on "a putz" of a brother, husband and lover who
has been dead for almost five years and who wasn't particularly nice to any of them in the first place.