Clara Brodeur left behind her old life with her famous photographer mother in New York City years ago. Ruth Dunne had used her young daughter in a series of photographs from the time the little girl was three until she was 14. The Clara Series, as it would become known later, stirred up great controversy because Clara was nude in most of the photos (and sometimes provocatively posed). It's hard enough for a young girl to separate herself from a strong-willed, creative mother, but it's more difficult still when that mother is famous and the daughter is the subject of her greatest artistic success.
Apart from the accolades Ruth received in the art world, her most famed collection is tearing her family apart. Ruth's husband appreciates his wife's artistic abilities but feels that Clara is being exploited and thus forbids Ruth from using Clara in that manner --- an admonishment ignored by Ruth. Older daughter Robin is jealous of her mother's preoccupation with Clara, who quickly realizes that Ruth's attention is clearly hinged on whether or not she is in the latest photo.
After a fellow student brings in a recent newspaper that cites the flap over Ruth's work, a teenaged Clara refuses to appear in any more of her mother's pictures. Clara leaves town as soon as she can, out of the shadow of the imposing Ruth Dunne.
She flees New York City and camps out in a friend's dorm room at Yale. While there, she meets a young student named Jonathan, with whom she quickly falls in love, and they begin a new life in Maine. Clara confides precious little information about her family to her husband and even less to her young daughter, Samantha. With her tortured past safely behind her, Clara's life goes along smoothly. Until she gets a phone call one day from Robin.
The two sisters haven't spoken in years, and their husbands and children have never met. Sad though that is, for Clara it has to be this way. But now Robin is calling with bad news. Their mother has cancer and is dying. Despite their past, Robin needs her sister's help. With her busy life as an attorney, an active family and their difficult mother berating and firing every health care worker she hires, Robin decides it's time for Clara to know ---- and to come home.
Convinced she won't stay for more than a day, Clara leaves for New York without so much as a suitcase and doesn't tell Sammy the truth about where she's going. She still hasn't forgiven Ruth but realizes she must face up to responsibility. After all, what happened in her childhood was not Robin's fault, and Robin shouldn't be forced to carry all the burden. But once there, Clara is overcome with the sights and smells of her old life. She sees her mother, once proud and strong, now humbled and having to rely on assistance to go to the bathroom. She soon feels her rock-hard resistance begin to soften as she helps care for this aged woman.
But when Ruth's agent, the flamboyant Kubovy, brings news of a retrospective book of The Clara Series that will be published soon, Clara feels betrayed and wonders if she will ever be able to repair the twisted relationship with her mother before she dies.
Dani Shapiro's BLACK & WHITE shines a light on the thorny terrain of mother/daughter relationships but adds a layer of difficulty by making the mother a famous Sally Mann-type photographer with questionable motives when using her daughter as her subject. Although at points one might wish Shapiro had delved a little deeper into Ruth's background, this novel will be a natural for book clubs to dissect and discuss the different aspects of this dysfunctional family. Why did Ruth ignore her husband's request and continue to use Clara? Should Clara forgive her dying mother? What about the poor, neglected sister in all of this? Reading groups will go into overtime debating about each character's motives and motivations, which I'm sure was at least partially the author's intent.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 7, 2011
Black & White