The coming-of-age novel is fairly standard fare in literary circles. In the hands of Ward Just, one of America's most accomplished writers, RODIN'S DEBUTANTE is more than a simple tale of growing and maturing. It's a masterful portrayal of America's heartland from the Roaring Twenties to the tumultuous '60s.
Born in Michigan City, Indiana, Just began his career as a journalist in Waukegan, Illinois. He chose the locale of his youth for his latest novel about Lee Goodell, the son of a conservative Midwest judge who chooses the life of an artist over the traditional family career of the law.
Goodell's life is shaped by Tommy Ogden, a man he will not meet until his senior year of prep school. Ogden is the antithesis of the young artist. Save for his birth, which allowed him to inherit a fortune, Ogden has no accomplishments to his name. Having attended seven boarding schools during his formative years, he decides he will use his money to create a private boarding school in the Midwest to show the eastern educators what a properly run school can achieve. His estate will be the venue for the school, a decision that does not sit well with his wife. While Ogden Hall attracts a number of good students, it also becomes an option for many who cannot meet the standards of the eastern schools Ogden despises.
Goodell appears in part two of the book in the community of New Jesper, located on the western shore of Lake Michigan, near the real-life community of Waukegan. In post-World War II, crime has reared its ugly head in New Jesper. After an unsolved murder and a sexual assault were hushed up by city fathers, Goodell's mother decides that the family should relocate to a better community, the North Shore. Young Goodell enrolls at Ogden Hall where the sculpture that provides the title for this novel inspires him to become an artist.
Graduating from Ogden Hall, Goodell attends the University of Chicago. The distance between the South Side of Chicago and the North Shore is measured in more than miles. Goodell experiences violence, crime and death. He will carry a visible scar throughout his life that reminds him just how "wild and cruel the world can be."
Throughout RODIN'S DEBUTANTE, Ward Just beautifully captures the ethos of the Midwest. When Goodell meets Bert Marks, the chairman of the Ogden Hall Board, he learns about the Chicago "can-do" spirit. "Other cities, they tear themselves apart exacting revenge," observes Marks. Chicago is different. "We're a young city and we look ahead, not backward." The novel embodies the spirit, crudeness and glamour of a city as well as an era. Just as Goodell creates beauty from an unformed piece of marble, the author creates a vivid and endearing portrait from a blank page. RODIN'S DEBUTANTE may impact readers in different ways, but its beauty and magnificent writing cannot be denied.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on March 28, 2011