What a tour de force this book proved to be. My head and my heart are still spinning from everything that is going on here. I kept thinking about how much work it must have been to stuff so much into one book and to keep track of everything. I greatly admire Hustvedt for it. Harriet Burden is one of the most complex characters I’ve encountered in a long time—not a burden, but a challenge. I loved that this entire book was about an intelligent, loud, and angry woman, and I loved that she was not very likeable. Is it still ok for me to complain just a little bit that it was work reading this book? At times, everything that was going on started to feel just a little too complex, to the point where it almost seemed forced. But then Harriet is a very complex character. I guess it’s only right that her book is complex as well.
The story is centered around Harriet’s experiment to figure out whether the art world, which has ignored her for her entire life, would take more notice of her work if everyone thought the artist were a man. She tries the experiment three times, only the third time, the artist posing as the creator double-crosses her and later dies under mysterious circumstances. But all three art shows were indeed successful, proving the point that it is easier for a male artist to be seen than for a female artist. This point is not only made in a simple, straightforward way. We get to hear a good number of dissenting voices, but the way they are presented, however convincing, makes it feel almost egregious for the reader to agree with them.
I could write quite a bit about this, but in the context of the Literary Wives discussion, I want to focus on how the book talks about the experience of being a wife. And, interestingly enough, this is the question I have the most trouble with. There is no doubt that her marriage was troubled, whether Harriet realized it at the time or not. Her husband ignored her and did not support her work. He cheated on her regularly as well. Heck, the first thing he said to her when they first met was that they had to do something about her wild hair. But I got the strong impression that this didn’t bother Harriet until after her husband had died, which made it hard for me to assess her role as wife. It seemed to me that she was angry about so many things that she only got angry about her husband once the anger was already going strong. He wasn’t what ignited her anger; he was just one more log on the already brightly burning fire. And while it would be easy to argue that the anger was either caused or fueled by Harriet’s career taking a backseat during her marriage or that her lack of success was based solely on the fact that she’s a woman, I can’t do that because there’s so much more to her than that.
I actually think she short-changed herself by not going out to conquer the world as herself. She might have thought that no one would see an aging woman, and, yes, she has a point, but from everything we know of her, she is hard to overlook, in both body and mind. It works with her complicated character that she would try to orchestrate her conquest the hard way, but seeing how having someone pose for you necessarily involves a second person, even if her experiment had worked as she intended, it would have never been just her. She would have always been one of a pair, and frankly, I am surprised that she never considered that people would focus more on the intrigue than the art once she revealed herself.
Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!
- Kay at What Me Read
- Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors
- Kate at Kate Rae Davis; Reading Culture, Finding God
- Naomi at Consume by Ink
- Eva at The Paperback Princess
And if you have read the book, I’d love to hear what you think of it.