Because I am a fan of Jane Ward's Food & Fiction Blog I was eager to read her new novel, The Mosaic Artist. It arrived last week and, despite being 356 pages long, it took me less than a week to read it. I had to pace myself because it is the sort of novel that is so compulsively readable that it would be easy to devour it without allowing spaces in which to think and dream. This story is worthy of much thinking and dreaming.
The story seems basic on its surface, Jack is married to Kay and is the father of Shelley and Mark. All appears to be going reasonably well until along comes Sylvie, a much younger, very attractive unattached young woman who applies for a job in Jack's company and promptly decides that Jack is quite desirable -- his wife and children not withstanding. For a couple years Jack and Sylvie carry on a highly romantic affair and then one day Jack realizes that he can no longer bear leaving Sylvie at the end of one of their trysts and he makes the decision to leave his family to be with her. He even manages to convince himself that everyone will be happier – in his arrogance and self-delusion he cannot imagine that his wife and children will not be happy for him that he has finally found true love.
When the story begins it is twenty-three years later and Jack is dying with Sylvie by his side. The story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Jack, Sylvie, Shelley, and Mark. Kay died earlier after many years of mental illness and decline. Shelley is really the heartbeat of the tale, now a married woman with two daughters, a loving husband, a teaching career and a beautiful home. Shelley holds everyone together, most especially her younger brother Mark who was 12 when their father left and has never forgiven him. Mark is now an artist of considerable talent but little focus. He has a girlfriend who tries to support him in his career but he is so mired in anger and bitterness toward his father he can't get on with it.
There is an old axiom that literary fiction refers to novels in which not much happens but that is a facile description. The Mosaic Artist is a fine example of the best of literary fiction for, though on the surface it is the tale of a divorce, a re-marriage, and a death, underneath the currents of emotional turmoil, longing, heartbreak, and love are powerfully revealed with elegance and depth. All four of the main characters lead lives that have been permanently altered because of Jack's decision to leave his family.
Mark is probably the easiest to understand. At times I felt like he needed a good swat and some Twelve Step meetings but his pain is right there on the surface and, though he knows he is hurting no one but himself, he doesn't care. His only refuge from the storm of his anger is his sister Shelley who has always cared for him. Shelley is a lovely, kind, patient woman who has tried to live a life of balance and forgiveness. She long ago made amends with her father and now, at his passing, reaches out to Sylvie, too. One almost wonders how long Shelley can go on being so good, but her children and her husband are her support.
Personally, I had difficulty with the character of Sylvie. It is tempting to think of her as a self-centered brat only interested in getting what she wants, namely Jack. But her devotion to her husband through his life, his dying and even beyond his death is heart-wrenching. Toward the end of the story, after the funeral one of her co-workers says to her, “You shouldn't be alone.” To which she replies, “No, I shouldn't be. But I am.” Therein seems to lie the cost of her greediness in pursuing a married man older than herself. But somehow we get the feeling she will survive just fine and it won't be long until she finds new consolation.
And then there is Jack, the man who thought that gratifying his desire was more important and worthy than his children. In Sylvie he found passion, desire, devotion and true love all of which he claims with little regard for the cost.
The Mosaic Artist is a gorgeously crafted story told in a measured, elegant style. The writing is beautiful and plumbs the depths of four peoples' experiences. It is a book to be savored, that will linger in the mind long after the story is concluded.
Thanks for reading.