Synopses & Reviews
From the author of Family History
("Poised, absorbing...a bona fide page turner" The New York Times Book Review
) and the best-selling memoir Slow Motion
, a spellbinding novel about art, fame, ambition, and family that explores a provocative question: Is it possible for a mother to be true to herself and true to her children at the same time?
Clara Brodeur has spent her entire adult life pulling herself away from her famous mother, the renowned and controversial photographer Ruth Dunne, whose towering reputation rests on the unsettling nude portraits she took of her young daughter from the ages of three to fourteen. The Clara Series, which graced the walls of museums around the world as well as the pages of New York City tabloids that labeled the work pornographic, cast a long and inescapable shadow over its subject. At eighteen, when Clara might have entered university and begun to shape an identity beyond her sensationalized, unsought role in the New York art world, she fled to the quiet obscurity of small-town Maine, where she married and had a child, a daughter whom she has tried to shield from the central facts of her early life and her damaging role as her mother's muse.
Fourteen years later, Ruth Dunne is dying, and Clara is summoned to her bedside. Despite her anguish and ambivalence about confronting a family life she has repressed and denied for more than a decade, Clara returns. She finds Ruth surrounded, even in her illness, by worshipful interns, protective assistants, and her conniving art dealer.
Once again, she is Clara Dunne, the object of curiosity, the girl in the photos. Except this time she has her own daughter to think about a girl who at nine looks strikingly like the girl in Ruth's photos and she yearns to protect her, to insulate her from the exposure that will inevitably result when her two worlds, New York and Maine, collide.
As Clara charts a path connecting her childhood with her adult life, Shapiro's novel weaves together past and present in images as stark and intense as the photographs that tore the Dunnes apart. A brilliant examination of motherhood a novel that pits artistic inspiration against maternal obligation and asks whether the two can ever be fully reconciled Black & White explores the limits and duties of family loyalties, and even of love. Gripping, haunting, psychologically complex, this is Shapiro at her captivating best.
"Clara, the protagonist of Shapiro's uneven fifth novel (after Family History), is the youngest daughter and muse of Ruth Dunne, a famous Manhattan photographer who made her name shooting Sally Mann-style (read: nude and provocative) photos of a young Clara. Unable to bear the humiliation of being 'the girl in those pictures,' Clara runs away from home at 18. Fourteen years later and still estranged from her mother, Clara's living in Maine with her husband and daughter when her older sister calls and tells her Ruth is in failing health. Clara travels back to Manhattan, where she comes to terms with her family and herself. Though Clara's frequent bemoaning of her emotional scars tries the reader's patience, Shapiro's sharp depictions of love and shame go a long way toward putting the self-pity into relief. It's unfortunate that Ruth fails to comes across as anything more than a narcissistic artist, but the novel offers some fine insights into marriage, the making of art and the often difficult mother-daughter dynamic." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The story unfolds beautifully, drawing the reader into the family drama....[P]sychologically gripping....Recommended..." Library Journal
"Victimhood presented, as the title suggests, in stark terms, with only occasional flashes of insight." Kirkus Reviews
"[O]ver-the-top....As the title suggests, Shapiro renders this interesting conflict in stark black and white. The novel would have been much more compelling had she used some shades of grey." Booklist
"After setting herself up for...potential failure, Shapiro does something rather thrilling with her story: She gets it just right." Washington Post
"[Shapiro] writes with an economy that draws the reader into the dramatic fray of the scenes, without the curse of melodrama." Providence Journal
"[P]provocative, hypnotic..." USA Today
"Universal dilemmas...face us all, and it is the novelist's job to breathe life into them one way or another, and this is something Shapiro does very well indeed." New York Times
"Trenchant and enduring...Shapiro elegantly and movingly portrays the troubled relationship young Clara has with a mother who uses her for her own artistic aims..." Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Ambitious...thrilling...Shapiro's subtle, nuanced handling of her material emphasizes the radical subjectivity of experience, and builds into a powerful and compelling point." Time Out New York
"Enthralling, fast-paced and a great read. Black & White presents knotty, compelling issues that Shapiro examines intelligently and without gratuitous drama." The Miami Herald
"Shapiro's central characters are expertly rendered: both the damaged Clara, whose childhood trust in and love for her mother was abused, and Ruth, whose love for her daughter and her art were so inextricably linked that they became interchangeable." Elle
From the acclaimed author of Family History and the bestselling memoir Slow Motion comes a sensational new novel about mothers and daughters.
About the Author
Dani Shapiro's most recent books include Family History and Slow Motion. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker; Granta; Elle; O, The Oprah Magazine; and Ploughshares, and has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She is currently a visiting writer at Wesleyan University. She lives with her husband and son in Litchfield County, Connecticut.
Reading Group Guide
1. What does the books title suggest about lifes absolutes? Is it possible for moral absolutes to existand to survivein a family?
2. The novels epigraph features Walker Evanss imperative to “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” Does Ruths work with Clara constitute an attempt to educate the eye? There is a vivid contrast between the immediacy of Evanss photos of Depression-era sharecroppers and the artifice of Ruths carefully staged compositions. What do you make of Shapiros use of the quote from Evans? Does Ruth die “knowing something”? If so, what is it?
3. When Sammy innocently suggests that they throw away all of Ruths old magazines, Clara experiences a moment of “near-euphoric clarity” (p. 203). Why? What does the act of purging “her mothers apartment of all that is unnecessary . . . every single unessential thing” (p. 203) represent to Clara?
4. Ruths first words to Clara, after fourteen years of silence, are “Wait a minute” (p. 14). Whats the significance of this? In what ways has Ruth kept Clara waiting, or in a state of suspended animation, over the years?
5. Photographer Sally Manns photographs of her own children, often pictured nude and in intimate settings, have been vilified as pornographic by some critics. Is Ruth meant to evoke Mann? How does the narrator describe Ruths photographs? Do they read as beautiful? Lurid? Upsetting? To what extent is the narration sympathetic with Clara? How would the novel be different if the story were told in first person with Clara as the narrator? With Ruth as the narrator?
6. On her final circuit of the art galleries in Chelsea, Ruth suffers the devastating embarrassment of anonymity. How does her humiliation affect Clara?
7. Robin believes that she was neglected while Clara received all of Ruths attention. How has she channeled this neglect in her adult life? Does she undergo a transformation in the course of the novel?
8. Rather than relish the memory of “the year her mother left her alone,” Clara recalls the year as “blank, like a skipped page in a notebook. A mistake” (p. 164). In fact, Clara goes so far as to study the critics reactions to this gap in Ruths career: “Whole academic papers have been published on the subject. Claras personal favorite, ‘The Interrupted Gaze, . . . is a psychoanalytic meditation on Ruths work” (p. 164). Why does Clara insist on immersing herself in what is ostensibly her least favorite topic, to the extent of reading academic papers? Does her obsessive behavior affect your ability to empathize with her? Is it meant to?
9. Kubovy is certain that Nathan “would be no more than a footnote in the ultimate biography of Ruth Dunne” (p. 89). Is he right? Is Nathan merely a footnote in the novel? Why is there so little information about his death and its impact on the three women in the family?
10. The act of creating a family of her own gives Clara the opportunity to examine every nuance of her mothers behavior from a safe distance. By comparing Ruths gaze to Jonathans, Clara realizes that “Ruths attention was predatory, stalking . . . Laying claim to her . . . Drowning out all that is good” (p. 123). Yet, as a mother, Clara also “knows the feeling . . . The desire to devour, the almost physical need to envelop and keep safe” (p. 133). How do these opposing insights serve Clara when she comes face-to-face with Ruth at last?
11. Ruths claim that, “its my work. Its not about youit was never about you” (p. 79) astonishes Clara and sets up a staggering dividing line between the two women early in their reunion. Is this remark meant to emphasize Ruths extreme self-absorption, or Claras? Can this moment be considered the climax of the novel?
12. When an affronted Peony challenges Clara and Robin about their apparent disregard for Ruths dignity, she asks “How can you not understand how lucky you are?” (p. 207). Why does the section end there, without exposing the two sisters reactions to this question? What would their answers have been?
13. During Ruths final hours, she begs Sam for forgiveness, mistaking the child for Clara. Clara fails to rescue her frightened daughter from this awkward scenario because “she cant help it. She wants to hear more” (p. 220). What does this scene suggest about Claras weaknesses? Why doesnt she prompt Sam to agree to forgive the dying woman? Is Claras reticence at this crucial moment justifiable?
14. Claras obsession with the photographs of herself is linked to her concept of identity. As a child, they represent togetherness with her mother: “Sometimes Clara imagines that they are together in that black-and-white world, that the place inside the pictures is the real one and this–all this is just a rehearsal” (p. 52). As an adult, she is able to recognize a photo of herself from the tiniest sliver of image “because those images have always been more vivid and immediate to Clara than anything she might actually be seeing” (p. 76). What does this imply about Claras sense of self? What shifts for Clara over the course of the novel, providing her with the emotional wherewithal to host the book party? What is the significance of her catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror in the books final paragraph?
15. Ruths enigmatic dedication in the book Clara reads: “To Clara and Robin, Without whom.” What are some possible meanings of this phrase, beyond the obvious “without whom none of it would have been possible” (p. 255)?
16. Claras emotional reactions to Ruths illness ricochet from fear, “Please dont be dead” (p. 137), to dispassion, “Just die . . . Just die already” (p. 177), to guilt, “Im killing her…its my fault shes dying” (p. 228). What do these phrases reveal about the complexities of death in a dysfunctional family? What is Claras emotional state at the moment of Ruths actual death?
17. As Clara peruses a stack of photographs of herself at her mothers bedside, she is “overtaken by a violent, intense desire to rip the pictures in two” and “sits on her hands . . . to stop herself from doing something she can never take back” (p. 77). How would the novel be different if Clara had acted on this impulse? Would she be a more or less likable character? Are the photographs hers to destroy?
18. Claras stunned reaction to being left in control of Ruths body of work is the liberating, optimistic conclusion “She loved me” (p. 252). Do you agree that this is Ruths posthumous message to her daughter, or might there be a more psychologically complex message at the root of her decision?