Saturday, September 18, 2010

Book Review: Susan Shapiro's Overexposed

"I spent years cutting myself out of photographs," is how Susan Shapiro's wonderful new novel Overexposed begins. It is the story of young photographer Rachel Solomon, her family, her friends, and her attempts at navigating a career in the big, cold city.

In Chapter One we are introduced to WASPy Elizabeth Mann, whose life Rachel is about to inhabit. Mann is "seen" exiting Vision magazine just as Rachel arrives on her first day as an art assistant. The two lives intersect.

Mann, in all the ways that matter, had the childhood that Rachel craved. Elizabeth grew up in the Village surrounded by artists. Rachel could only wish that her father was a world famous photographer that spent a decade at Life. Curiously, Rachel's father, a doctor, at one point also wanted to be a photographer before switching majors in college to chemistry in deference to his family's wishes.

Things have a way of coming full circle in the families that Susan Shapiro carefully creates. Mann, curiously, wishes she had the stability of Rachel's upbringing in the Midwest suburbs. She grew up in a broken home. Her own father, William Mann, was alcoholic manic depressive who met a sad end. "Nothing wrong with being a Midwest Jewish doctor's daughter," is one of the first exchanges between Mann and Solomon. "Wish I had two older brothers."

The degree to which Elizabeth wishes to have had Rachel's childhood doesn't immediately register. "Sharp edges, hungry, fiercely candid" is the psychological type that Rachel is drawn to in people. Elizabeth, with her backhanded compliments, her independent manner and her edgy personal life is exciting -- everything Rachel has left the suburbs to ultimately become.

Then Elizabeth starts dating Rachel's brother. And going to nursing school at Columbia. And getting herself invited to Rachel's childhood home in Illinois. And -- can you see where this is headed? -- finally, marrying her brother Benjamin and moving to the Midwest. Very "Freaky Friday." As Rachel becomes ensconced in the New York art scene, Elizabeth is becoming the daughter Rachel's mother always wanted.

Because the main protagonist this time around is about a photographer, it allows the author Susan Shapiro to present vivid pictures to the reader, like:

"Reaching under the desk, I pulled out the grad school portfolio I carried with me everywhere and turned to the last photo. It was a close-up of an innocent looking girl in an NYU T-shirt, afternoon light falling across her face, the Delancey Street sign in the background. I'd caught the girl locking eyes with a six-foot Marilyn Monroe impersonator just as Marilyn winked at her. My parents met on Delancey Street."

And, my favorite:

"Sitting at the Village Den this rainy Saturday, I chain smoked and held my camera up to the window. Everybody was carrying something odd. An old man with a gray beard lugged a tuba. A woman with a purple scarf held an easel with both arms, like a dance partner. Two teenagers transported a stuffed antique chair they'd probably found on a street corner. They all seemed to be checking each other out. I liked the idea of watching people who were people watching."

There is also a real love of New York City rendered in this novel, as well as a keen eye for the quirky. This is new for Shapiro, who usually deals with the New York literary world.

The apparent conflict between two different styles of womanhood -- the suburban Midwest mother on the one hand, and urbane sophisticate on the other -- moves, powerfully, through the book. This conflict is essentially shorthand for the relationship between Rachel and her mother. The book begins with the thesis that these two styles are somehow incompatible (Rachel literally cutting herself out of family photographs).

Rachel and her mother are two women in a house full of doctors. As much as Rachel loves her mom, she does not want to become a balabusta (an overfeeding Jewish mother defined by the men in her life). Rachel's father and two brothers, Ben and Danny, are all politically conservative, country music listening, right brained types. Can you say: switched at birth?

There is a charged, hyper-competitive male dominated element in the Illinois suburbs of Rachel's beginnings, but Shapiro, who shared a lot with her creation, expresses it with humor. For example, witness the "disease game," which comes on the heels of Rachel's big announcement that she had just landed a real job in the big city and was staying:

"'Disease'?' asked my brother Ben, sitting across from me, trying to initiate the stick game they'd shoved in my face my entire life.

"'Do it later,' I insisted. I was the firstborn of the Solomon kids, fourteen months Ben's senior. I had just flown six hundred miles. I was ready to make my announcement.

"'Okay,' my father cleared his throat. 'Sixty year old fat lady with mitral endocarditis, blood growing strep bovis.'

"'Colon cancer,' Ben jumped in.

"'You're faster than your old man already,' My father forked string beans onto his plate."

How else are hypercompetetive doctors supposed to have fun? The theme of transformation, of switched personas is vividly described in this sharp scene involving a red silk Donna Karan blazer:

"She went to the closet, stepping inside. 'Hey! A walk-in! How many jackets do you have?' Was she counting? 'Fourteen!' she called. I went to the closet with her, pulled down a red silk Donna Karan blazer my mother had sent me, though I never wore red.

"'This would look good on you,' I said. 'Try it on.'

"She put it on and went to the bathroom mirror. Coming up behind her I caught us together. We were cut from the same mold: tall sturdy girls with big shoulders and dark hair. We could almost be sisters. I sat on the counter. She took Rose Petal blush from my makeup bag.

"'Show me how to do blush. Yours looks so natural,' she said, inspecting my cheeks carefully. 'I think I put mine on too low.'"

Though there are several minor sub-themes running through the course of the book -- will Rachel find a husband? will Rachel find an apartment? -- Overexposed is essentially a book about relations between women. Many of Susan Shapiro's previous books -- Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Speed Shrinking -- have dealt with the complicated relationships between women and their lovers and their fathers and their shrinks. This book, however, is mostly about the relationships between mothers and daughters and their girlfriends.

Discussing this wonderful novel further risks revealing too much of the plot. Can Rachel accept Elizabeth as a sister-in-law? Will Rachel get her dream apartment? Will Rachel make it in the Manhattan art scene or will she return, tail between her legs, back to Illinois?

"I spent years cutting myself out of photographs," is how Susan Shapiro's new novel Overexposed begins. And it ends, appropriately, "'Now she's driving me crazy to get into the picture,' my mother said, smiling as the shutter clicked."

Susan Shapiro's Overexposed is available on Amazon.

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