Although I’m hardly sympathetic to the trials of America’s one percent, especially those individuals who live off the largesse of their ancestors, I found Dubow’s story of unrequited love to be a real page-turner. With its crisp images of Manhattan’s art world and the artists who inhabit it, Dubow’s novel is packed with plenty of wonderful metaphors and richly ironic observations.
Although her own talent never rises to the level of the rest of her family
(particularly her handsome brother, Aurelio), Cesca Bonet’s startling beauty is all that seems to matter to Wylie Rose, the man she ultimately seduces. From her youth to her wild years living in London and Paris, then to Barcelona,
where she stays with her brother in the City’s red-light district, Cesca--this bold, unashamed artist’s daughter--embodies a natural charisma that men, including Wylie, are unable to resist. Ten-year-old Wylie first meets the Bonets at their large compound in Amagansett and is immediately seduced by the family’s air of cultured sophistication. He’s especially spellbound by mercurial, lovely, dark-haired Cesca, and also by Aurelio, who possesses an otherworldly beauty, “as though he were composed of a rare element.”
From this moment on, Wylie dreams of Cesca, the “most beautiful girl in the world.” As Wylie’s obsession with her grows into “the purist kind of lust” (he envisions himself as romantic lead
and she the grateful maiden), this dark-haired seductress remains just out of reach and just a little on the on the verge of love. Hailing from privileged Upper Eastside himself and with family money funding his own artistic rebellion, Wylie has begun to yearn, albeit unobtrusively, for his own form of self-expression. Embarking on his own career as an artist, Wylie’s single-minded obsession with Cesca becomes a perfect fit for this impressionable young man who aches for the promise of security and respectability.
No surprises that Wylie proceeds to fall in love with this exotic, glamorous woman who proves to be maddeningly self-absorbed and selfish as she proceeds to take Wylie’s love for granted: “Nothing about her was simple, but then I was too callow to know better.” In a landscape where flirting with Cesca is as natural as breathing, Wyle finds himself rash with impunity, often blinded by passion at Cesca’s stunning self-involvement and sense of entitlement.
From a party at the Bonets to the dunes overlooking Gardiner’s Bay, a nearly full moon casts a silvery glow over the beach. There’s lot of sex and lust as the summer days and nights crackle with promise, and the warm silken evenings are wrapped in the glow of youthful intimacy.
Here Wyle and Cesca first share their dreams and fears, and for the first time, Wylie becomes blind to consequences of his decision to commit himself to his Muse.
The novel is gorgeous and always compelling, but as Dubow’s chapters appear like the achingly sad portraits painted by damaged, handsome Aurelio, I was left gravitating halfway between fascination and disinterest. I did not especially like Wylie, and I found it hard to believe that he would spend his days pining over a woman who uses him and loves him in a fashion that always leaves him heartsick and alone. While Wylie often comes across as weak and ineffectual, a furry fuzzball of a man, Cesca is distinctive in her fighting spirit as she flits from man to man, finally moving to London, ostensibly to study at the Chelsea School of Art.
Here Cesca meets handsome Englishman Freddie, who takes her Venice where the days “slip by in pink haze” and every moment seems “ripe with carnality.”
I’m not even sure I even like Aurelio; for all his obvious talent, he often comes across as phony and facile, with his cavalier attitude towards his own life (which, in a subtle twist of irony, mirrors his sister’s).
Both Cesca and Wylie’s parents are cardboard cutouts, although Wylie’s father, Mitch, is memorable, especially when he warns his son about the Bonet family: “They're beautiful, talented, and rich, but they're also like spoiled children. They'll take everything and give nothing in return." Seduced by the glamorous world of pretentious Cesca, poor Wylie is plunged into the realities of a life that many fail to see, or many ignore, because they are either too painful to integrate or too obscure to be recognized.
In the end, I made the conscious choice to accept Dubow’s portrait of these people exactly the way they appear to be, even though it made me angry that Wylie constantly bent to the force of Cesca’s will and to the extraordinariness of her beauty. Sad, heartbreaking, and perhaps a little too melodramatic, I just couldn’t look away as Wylie yet again accepts the siren call, coming to a woman who treats him so cheaply but, in many ways, helps him to shape the man he will eventually become.