Janet Fitch's dark, emotionally raw debut novel, WHITE OLEANDER,
was an early Oprah's Book Club selection and became an instant
bestseller, even being adapted into a feature film. It's been
several years since then, but her second novel, PAINT IT BLACK,
proves that Fitch is as sharp as ever, with intensive character
studies and emotional intensity that draws readers into the
near-claustrophobic circle of consuming grief and loss.
The year is 1980, the place is Los Angeles. Josie Tyrell is firmly
entrenched in the city's punk-rock scene. She spends her days
modeling nude for studio art classes and appearing in student
films, making enough money to support her nightly club-going,
fueled by plenty of alcohol, cigarettes and harder drugs. When we
first meet Josie, she's practically paralyzed by rage, frustrated
that her boyfriend Michael, a struggling artist, has disappeared,
citing a need to get away to work on his projects. Josie's fury is
quickly eclipsed by numbing grief, however, after she gets a call
from the police. Michael's body has been discovered in a hotel
room; he has committed suicide.
When Josie emerges to attend Michael's funeral, a high-society
affair engineered by Michael's famous concert pianist mother
Meredith Loewy, Josie is physically attacked by Meredith, who seems
to harbor a vendetta against the young woman, screaming, "How dare
you? Why are you alive? How can you be alive when he's dead?"
Saddened and confused, Josie retreats to nurse her grief and to
ponder the questions about Michael's background that have already
arisen. Is it possible that the shy, unathletic virgin with whom
she fell in love was actually a ranked tennis player, a ladies' man
at Harvard? Who is this young man she thought she knew?
It turns out that Josie isn't the only one with questions. With
great reluctance, Josie reunites with Michael's mother Meredith,
and the two forge an uneasy relationship as they delve into their
common bond: their love for Michael. "Now her son was dead, and she
was stuck talking to Josie Tyrell, the only one who knew him. In
this, they were a nation of two, she and Meredith Loewy."
Long-buried secrets, the rawness of grief --- these things bring
Josie and Meredith together in an at-times explosive, often
insightful character study of what it means to love one person in
very different ways.
The first hundred pages of the novel, when the reader is absorbed
wholly into Josie's self-directed hurt and rage, seem to take a
while to get started. But by the time Josie and Meredith start
talking to each other, Fitch has, as if by magic, drawn readers
into her study of two very different, not particularly likable
women. From that point on, it's very difficult to put down this at
times painfully intimate psychological portrait.
PAINT IT BLACK is an almost magnetic personality study, a
meditation on grief and love, and what it means to go on living
when the most important thing in one's life has disappeared.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 14, 2011
Paint It Black