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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, December 24th, 2002


Seek My Face

by John Updike

A review by Christina Schwarz

Few writers could get away with a novel in which the bulk of the story a fictionalized version of America's postwar art scene, distilled through the memory of a seventy-eight-year-old woman — is reported rather than dramatized, but Updike pulls it off beautifully. The action, such as it is, consists of a day-long interview in Vermont of Hope Chafetz, a painter twice married to famous artists (the first of whom distinctly resembles Jackson Pollock) and finally to a man "in money." The interviewer, a young woman from New York, checks occasionally to be sure her tape recorder is running, pages through her notes, and uses the bathroom. Hope makes sandwiches. They tour the yard and look into Hope's studio. From such banalities Updike, with his immense talent for making details tell, milks a rich life for Hope and a nuanced, unwaveringly realistic relationship between the two women. Mostly, however, this is a novel of ideas. Hope muses about her distant, Protestant God and ruminates about the role of the wife of a genius. (Although the latter bits are gracefully written, their focus on events and feelings long past renders them somewhat bloodless.) Surprisingly, most immediate and convincing are the discussions about abstract expressionism (which I would think would be most difficult to translate into precise and compelling sentences): the effect of particular paintings and styles, the purpose behind specific techniques, the artists' ambitions, and Hope's provocative theories about women's and men's artistic capabilities.

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