RODIN’S DEBUTANTE by Ward Just
“Itâ€™s good early in life to experience success. It puts you on the right track for later on, when it counts. You donâ€™t learn a god damned thing from defeat. Thatâ€™s the wrong track and defeat stays with you and becomes the expected thing. Itâ€™s a chain around your neck.”
Review by Jill I. Shtulman Â (MAR 02, 2011)
Ward Just is a writerâ€™s writer, as straightforward and gritty and no-nonsense as Chicagoâ€”the city from which he hails. His solid 17th novel carries a seemingly enigmatic title â€“ Rodinâ€™s Debutante â€“ a curiosity, considering the book has nothing to do with Rodin or debutantes.
But wait â€“ as in much of Ward Justâ€™s work, there is complexity and hidden meaning behind the seeming simplicity. Sculpturally, Rodin â€“ the progenitor of modern sculpture — possessed a distinctive ability to model a complex, turbulent, deeply pocketed surface in clay. Similarly, Lee Goodell, the key protagonist of Rodinâ€™s Debutante, takes his own unformed life and sculpts it, in an education that stretches from the boarding school at the Ogden Hall School of Boys to the mean south side city streets of Chicago.
The story begins in the early 20th century with the bellicose Tommy Ogden, a rough-edged Chicago tycoon who thwarts his wife Mariaâ€™s desire to travel to Paris to commission her own Rodin bust; instead, he chooses to endow a Midwestern boyâ€™s prep school. A Rodin bust of an anonymous debutante does eventually grace Ogden Hallâ€™s Library, but it is not the bust of Maria Ogden, despite commonly accepted wisdom. It is â€śjust appearancesâ€ť and a metaphor for what life is all about.
Flash forward many decades. The story shifts to Lee Goodell. He and his family live in New Jesper, a quiet traditional town off the shores of Lake Michigan, where Leeâ€™s innocence is shattered after a particularly violent sex crime of a classmate. Lee â€“ a self-described observer of life â€“ ends up at enrolling at Ogden Hall, where he excels; he, too, wants to sculpt. In a twist of fate, he meets the now reclusive millionaire and gushes to him, â€śI believe Rodinâ€™s bust of your late wife is a wonderful work of art. Itâ€™s a great thing to have in the library. Itâ€™s an inspiration. Itâ€™s been an inspiration to me.â€ť A bemused Tommy Ogden casually shatters that illusionâ€¦the first of many illusions that will be shattered for Lee.
And that is the bookâ€™s core theme: the divergence of false appearance and reality. Whether itâ€™s the falsity of a respectable community where the truth never sees the light of day, the false appearance of harmony in Hyde Park, which is rife with class and racial distinctions, or the falsity of the legend behind Rodinâ€™s debutante marble statue, life is never what it seems, only what you make it. The fact that Lee becomes a sculptor, too, is also no accident. He finds comfort in a slab of unformed marble, where possibilities are infinite, and where he has the control of shaping the outcome. In this career, the ideal of art and the reality of life are finally able to blend.
Lee Goodell is a good manâ€¦perhaps, a bit too good, which translates into not enough of the pockmarks and imperfections that lead to a fully-rounded and satisfying key character. Still, this is a solid piece of work, with sparse and powerful prose, rich observations, and a meticulously crafted plot. The sense of place, the crude glamour of rough-and-ready mid-century Chicago is spot-on. Rodinâ€™s Debutante is a very worthy addition to Ward Justâ€™s fine craftsman-like body of work.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 25 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (March 1, 2011)|
|REVIEWER:||Jill I. Shtulman|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia on Ward Just|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||More Chicago fiction:Dream City by Brendan Short|
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