Last month, so many of you enjoyed my friend Melissa's review of STEALING ATHENA that I asked her if she would mind contributing a few more reviews for my blog. Fortunately, she agreed - -this time it's BLACK AND WHITE by Dani Shapiro! I recently received a paperback copy of this book; and since I had already read the book when it was first released in hardcover, I passed it along to Melissa.
Summay: Clara Brodeur has spent her entire adult life pulling herself away from her famous mother, the renowned and controversial photographer Ruth Dunne, whose towering reputation rests on the unsettling nude portraits she took of her young daughter. At age eighteen, sick of her notoriety as “the girl in the pictures,” Clara fled New York City, settling and making her own family in small-town Maine. But years later, when Ruth reaches out from her deathbed, Clara suddenly finds herself drawn back to the past she thought she had escaped. A spellbinding novel that asks: how do we forgive those who failed to protect us? – Book Jacket
Ruth Dunne’s famous series of nude photographs of her daughter begins with a picture of three-year-old Clara in the bathtub, and continues with other nude portraits until Clara is fourteen. As a mother of an eight-year-old daughter, I found myself engrossed by this story. Given the fact that most of my friends would probably describe me as an “over-protective” mother, I really could not grasp what would drive a parent to exploit her young daughter in such a public way for the sake of her career.
Ruth’s controversial series is touted as genius by the art world and pornographic by other critics. I suppose some of the earlier photos could be viewed as innocent artistic portrayals of youth, but all I could see was a mother’s negligence and betrayal. Of course, this is coming from someone who feels squeamish signing school and extracurricular release forms that would allow my child’s photo to be used for related publications.
I should probably say that although I appreciate the arts, I am certainly not an artist myself. I don’t really understand that artistic drive to create that can overwhelm and override every other aspect of an artist’s life. With that being said, I found it very hard to sympathize with Ruth’s cavalier attitude and argument that the pictures were simply art and were not really about her daughter. Taking the pictures may have been an innocent expression of her artistic talent, but in my opinion, publishing the photos for the entire world to see was a reprehensible and blatant disregard for her own child’s privacy. What bothered me the most about Ruth was her lack of sympathy for the obvious pain she was causing Clara, especially as she neared the tender age of puberty.
Although I was disturbed about the mother’s actions in this story, I really did enjoy the book. I found myself thinking about it long after I finished it. It made me contemplate the responsibility that parents have for their children’s emotional and physical well-being. Most importantly, it reiterated for me the importance of providing our children with a nurturing, safe and healthy environment in which they can grow and thrive.
Putting aside Clara’s and Ruth’s history together, BLACK AND WHITE is fundamentally a poignant narrative about forgiveness and acceptance. When Clara is notified that her mother is dying, she grapples with her instinct for self preservation that has been built upon forgetting and ignoring the past with her need to understand and forgive the actions of her mother so that she can finally live her life without looking back. And, as the book’s title suggests, life’s most difficult choices rarely present themselves in black and white. BLACK AND WHITE would make an excellent choice for any book club.
A huge thanks goes out to Melissa for her wonderful insight into this novel. I remember enjoying BLACK AND WHITE (as well as Ms. Shapiro's FAMILY HISTORY), and Melissa's thoughts about the story definitely resonated with me. I, too, had an extremely difficult time understanding the mother's actions in this book! I second Melissa's opinion that BLACK AND WHITE would make a wonderful book club pick especially if your club has any mothers in it -- there is a lot to discuss about parental love and mother/child relationships. If you think you might be interested in BLACK AND WHITE for a future book club meeting, there is a reading guide available to help direct your discusson.