A friend of mine recommended I read Spending by Mary Gordon, and I’m very glad she did. And so, to quote my good friend, “You have to read this book!” Gordon’s skill with character and plot are like an artist’s skill with color and light, and New York is the canvas, Monica Szabo, middle-aged artist, is the foreground and her friends and family make up the background. It’s a classic story of a talented but poor struggling artist with a difference. During a slideshow presentation, Monica lectures about the gender differences between male and female artists; male painters throughout history had their Muse, a woman who inspired them and organize their life so they could devote themselves body and soul to the creation of great works of art. Encouraged by her audience she begins to rant: “Where, I ask you, lovers of the arts, where are the male Muses?” It is a rhetorical question but a man steps forward and offers to be her Muse.
The man is B, a wealthy commodities trader who has the money and the desire to give Monica everything she needs. Pure fantasy? Not quite. Monica is an independent woman, and she resists B’s tempting offer to support her. Pure romance novel? Note quite. She decides to sleep with him instead. Monica’s inner monologues are humourous, scathing and insightful as she tries to rationalize her dilemma. If Monica accepts B’s money, is she selling her art, her body, her soul? Gordon’s Monica is a complex female character. She is middle-aged, a mother, an artist, a feminist, and at times these traits create inner turmoil. Is money the root of all evil? Would it be wrong to accept his gifts if it allowed her the freedom to paint?
Inspiration comes to her one night while watching B sleep in post-coital bliss. In a flash of artistic brilliance, Monica decides to paint a series based upon the paintings of the deposed Christ. She knows that in order to do this properly she must be able to see Mantegna’s Dead Christ in Milan, Italy. The temptation to create her work in a totally new way, luxuriously, spontaneously and without a thought to cost leads Monica to question her relationship with B, with art, and with the people she loves.
Monica flip-flips between happiness and guilt. Her twin daughters are no help; Rachel refers to her mother’s arrangement with B as whoring, and Sara is secretive and distant. In spite of Monica’s moodiness -- or perhaps because of it -- she is a character one can easily relate to. When Monica completes her series of paintings, the Catholic Defense League pickets her gallery showing and triggers a barrage of free press most artists would kill for. Soon another wealthy patron steps forward to commission a painting.
Spending is about a whirlwind three-year tour into the world of art and love. This novel could easily be cross-referenced under sensuality/sexuality. The eroticism between Monica and B is believable (read doable), and Gordon manages to maintain the playful yet passionate pace of their relationship from beginning to end. This novel was written in 1998, and because of that it has an unintentional poignant twist – I will say no more. Read Spending, visit a museum, and search for your Muse. I give this novel four stars because not only did I keep turning its pages well past midnight, but because it also rekindled my hope that life imitates art. And so I say to you, dear reader, “Where, oh where, is my male Muse?"