I found Peale’s crisp novel initially appealing, with its concise images of the art world, the studios and tools of the trade, and the rarified atmosphere of the art gods who rule a very special niche in contemporary New York society. Her own talent perhaps as impressive as the man she assists, Michael Frieburg, Emma coexists with the crème of artists and collectors, so far content to shadow the greater painter for whom she has worked for the past six years.
But with her thirty-second birthday on the horizon, Freiburg’s lover-cum-assistant has begun to yearn, albeit quietly, for self-expression and a return to her own work: “What about making art? What about being able to stand alone?" Until recently, Emma has been content to lend her brush to the creations of another, a practice commonly accepted for artists of Freiburg’s caliber.
This awakening coincides with Emma’s meeting of another lion of the New York art scene, Phillip Cleary, Michael’s contemporary: “He made me feel competitive and agitated… aware that I was not doing enough with my life.” Seduced by the glamorous world of success, Emma fears she may have lost her creative soul. Finally she begins to face the consequences of her decision to be a well-known artist’s assistant, foregoing individuality: “I had been ruled by a superficial sense of competition.”
As the chapters unfold like the layers of a painting, I am left to consider my own reaction. The New York art world is not familiar to me, but the characters that flit from gallery to gallery are not particularly distinctive, save their stunning self-involvement and sense of accomplishment. I’m not sure I even like Peale’s facile protagonist for all her assumed talent. Certainly I find her friends Irene, Idris and Hideki one-dimensional.
I want to care more than I do. But something about Emma Dial, from her devotion to Michael to her own slow awakening after meeting Phillip Cleary, yet another charismatic man, fails to charm. Peale’s prose is fresh but distant, like Emma, who barely breaks from the male-dominated direction she has embraced until the end of the novel: “I was done being enthralled by other painters for a while.”
With a Thomas Wolfe-ian sense of class, a lack of animation translates into predictability, an esoteric landscape of people who may as well live in a different universe. Emma is pretentious, in her life choices, her angst, her chronic monitoring of an obscure web site, and her love affairs. I take Peale’s estimation of Dial’s work at face value, a transient concern, for this is not a character who will linger long in my mind.