'Black & White'
By DANI SHAPIRO
Reviewed by ERICA WAGNER
Dani Shapiro�s protagonist was her photographer/mother�s favorite subject.
* First Chapter
To whom does a novel belong? There it is — an object of a certain size, shape and weight, its title, its author’s name on the cover. So there can be, you would think, little doubt. “Black & White,” this one says, “a novel by Dani Shapiro.” So this novel belongs to, is made by, Dani Shapiro. So far, so good. But when I read Shapiro’s book, she is not with me. I have only her words, black marks on white pages, though in this novel her title should be taken to refer, of course, to the photographic images that have made its protagonist a celebrity, albeit an unwilling one. But art exists just as much in the mind of the reader (or beholder) as it does in the mind of its creator, if not more so. I once heard Margaret Atwood respond to an intricate question of interpretation with regard to the sexual politics of “The Handmaid’s Tale” with three simple words, dryly delivered: “You tell me.” Some might call that evasive; I’d say it’s right on the money.
Shapiro’s novel hinges on this question of interpretation: the interpretation of art and, in this context, the interpretation of a life. As the novel opens, Clara Brodeur returns to Manhattan to face her dying mother, Ruth Dunne, whom she has not seen in 14 years. Clara dropped out of high school, fled New York at 18 and finally made herself a home all the way up in Maine, on Mount Desert Island; it seems to Clara that if she goes this far, finally, she will have escaped her past. Mount Desert is her husband’s idea, and to Clara it offers a dream of freedom: “He had said the magic word. Island. A place disconnected from the mainland. A place floating on its own, separate, apart.” And so her city-girl self vanishes, or apparently so, swallowed into a life as the wife of a jewelry maker who makes a good living in the summer months, and as the mother of Samantha, their 9-year-old daughter, who is ignorant of her mother’s past.
Clara had fled, all those years ago, because her mother’s fame as a photographer arose out of the images she took of her daughter, images Clara has needed to leave behind so that “Clara Dunne no longer exists, at least not as a living, breathing person. Clara Dunne is only a flat black-and-white series of images, frozen in time: a toddler, a little nymph, a prepubescent creature, a teenager — hanging on the walls of museums and galleries, sold at auction to the highest bidder.” (The images described in the novel resemble, to some degree, the work of the photographer Sally Mann.) Now, Clara’s older sister, Robin, has called Clara back to New York because their mother has cancer. You could say, at this point, that the novel’s central proposition is trite: how will Clara face the demons of her past?