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2 Burnside Literature- A to Z

The Great Man

by

The Great Man Cover

 

 

Reading Group Guide

The Great Man is as unexpectedly generous as it is entertaining. . . . Wise and expansive. . . . Christensen is a witty observer of the art universe.”

The New York Times

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Kate Christensen's The Great Man.

1. The novel opens with Oscar Feldman's obituary, which states that Oscar was survived by his sister and wife. The obituary mentions neither his mistress nor their daughters. How did this affect your reading of Chapter One, which is about Teddy St. Cloud? Did you find it confusing? Ironic? Did it take a while to figure out who she was? Why do you think the author chose to begin the book this way?

2. How does the fact that there are two biographers rather than just one add to or detract from the dramatic tension of the book? How would you characterize Henry's and Ralph's aims, feelings, and ideas about Oscar at the beginning of the book? How and why do these shift and change during the novel? What, if anything, does the book review at the end add to the story?

3. Maxine Feldman has some rather complex and very strong feelings about her brother. How would you characterize these feelings? What are some of the reasons behind them? Do you empathize with her?

4. Abigail Feldman tells Henry that she's surprised that she ended up married to a man who came and went, cloistered in an airless apartment taking care of an autistic son, with a black housekeeper for her best friend. What are some of the reasons you think she might have chosen this life instead of the life of an unmarried English lit professor she had always thought she wanted? Do you believe the life she ended up with was more or less happy or fulfilling for her than the one she didn't choose?

5. Do you think any of the women in the novel felt happy and fulfilled by their lives? Did any of them have as much control over their own actions and fates as Oscar had over his?

6. How does this quote from “The End of the Novel of Love,” by Vivian Gornick, relate to Oscar Feldman's women and biographers? “How many women and men have I, in my short, obscure lifetime, watched subjugate themselves to The Great Man, the one who seemed to embody art with a capital A or revolution with a capital R? Our numbers are legion. We ourselves were intelligent, educated, talented, none of us moral monsters, just ordinary people hungry to live life at a symbolic level. At the time, The Great Man seemed not only a good idea but a necessary one, irreplaceable and unforgettable.”

7. Did the revelation that Maxine painted “Helena” surprise you? Does knowing this necessarily change the way the painting is seen? Do you agree that it also changes the way “Mercy” is seen as well, as Ralph says? Why or why not?

8. Throughout the novel, Oscar is a kind of focal point that unites all the characters and provides the story with its drama and flow, even though he's dead. Did you find that Oscar came alive for you in everyone's various feelings about and memories of him, or did he remain somewhat incomplete and shadowy? How do you feel about Oscar-do you admire him? Disapprove of him? Wonder why all the women were so in love with him? Envy him?

9. “If you were a woman, you could never have everything,” Teddy thinks at the end of Chapter Two. “[My mother's] a control freak,” Ruby tells Ralph at the end of Chapter Three. How do you think Teddy's awareness that she couldn't have everything, coupled with her evident desire for control, affected her decision to be the mistress for many decades of a man who was married to someone else and faithful to no one?

10. The book ends at Maxine's retrospective—Maxine died famous, but with the bittersweet knowledge that her pride prevented her from finding lasting love with Jane; Teddy has fallen in love with Lewis, but their time together is limited; and Abigail and Lila have become friends, but neither of them ever found the fulfillment in work each had hoped for as a young woman. Meanwhile, Henry is having a passionate love affair with Ruby, which sickens him with dread about his marriage; Ralph is financially secure now because of his secret deal with Abigail, which is essentially to whitewash the truth about his former idol, Oscar. Each of them has in some way received what she or he wanted, but in a compromised way. Is this a sugary, happy ending, a realistically true-to-life one, or an ironic and complicated one?

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 3 comments:

salliforth, October 29, 2008 (view all comments by salliforth)
I had a little trouble getting into the insular New York art world, and the characters were not my favorite people. Interesting folks, but hard to relate. I give this book a higher ranking for its ending (where so many other books fall down). It is almost as if it were written from the ending backward. And of course, it is not about the great man, but about the women in his life (his wife, his mistress, her adoring best friend, his illegitimate daughters, his artist-sister). As other reviewers have noted, these are mostly older women with great sex lives and convoluted relationships. At the end, the great man seems totally unmasked.
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Alethea, September 22, 2008 (view all comments by Alethea)
Honestly, the "art world" always blows my mind - I just don't get it. Nevertheless, this novel was as much about the inner and sexual lives of older women, and as such, was a treat. I hope that's me in 40 years!
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Mindy88, May 10, 2008 (view all comments by Mindy88)
Older women are sexual creatures? Who knew??

Seriously, this highly enjoyable read is doubly satisfying knowing that it won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. Another woman author breaks through the literary glass ceiling. Hurray!
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780307277343
Author:
Christensen, Kate
Publisher:
Anchor Books
Subject:
General
Subject:
Adultery
Subject:
Painters
Subject:
Psychological fiction
Subject:
New york (n.y.)
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20080531
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
320
Dimensions:
8.02x5.28x1.00 in. .77 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

The Great Man Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$7.50 In Stock
Product details 320 pages Anchor Books - English 9780307277343 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Nimble, witty and discerning, Kate Christensen is single handedly reinvigorating the comedy of manners with her smart and disemboweling novels of misanthropes, cultural and aesthetic divides, private angst, social ambition and appetites run amok."
"Review" by , "Christensen's writing is clear-eyed, muscular, bitingly funny, and supremely caustic about the niceties of social relations, contemporary American culture, and sexual politics."
"Review" by , "Kate Christensen's brilliant, big-hearted skewering of greatness, of men, of the Manhattan art scene, of love, reminded me that books can be witty, and heartbreaking, and intelligent, and keep you up too late reading. How rare it is that a writer is talented enough to deliver such varied treasures in one novel, but Christensen manages it effortlessly."
"Review" by , "The prose in this book is stunning; the characters fascinating, endearing, and utterly real. Kate Christensen is, quite simply, one of the finest artists writing today."
"Review" by , "These characters are wonderfully developed and break the stereotype of the aging female protagonist. Christensen . . . boldly has raised the bar."
"Synopsis" by , Christensen pens a scintillating comedy of life among the avant-garde — of the untidy truths, needy egos, and jostling for position behind the glossy facade of artistic greatness — in this PEN Faulkner Award-winning story of a New York City painter living in the heroic generation of the 1940s and 1950s.
"Synopsis" by , Oscar Feldman, the renowned figurative painter, has passed away. As his obituary notes, Oscar is survived by his wife, Abigail, their son, Ethan, and his sister, the well-known abstract painter Maxine Feldman. What the obituary does not note, however, is that Oscar is also survived by his longtime mistress, Teddy St. Cloud, and their daughters.

As two biographers interview the women in an attempt to set the record straight, the open secret of his affair reaches a boiling point and a devastating skeleton threatens to come to light. From the acclaimed author of The Epicure's Lament, a scintillating novel of secrets, love, and legacy in the New York art world.

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