Pity the children of artistes: All it takes is one click of a shutter and, the next thing you know, you’re sipping Shirley Temples in a Soho gallery while fawning crowds ooh and aah over “subversive” six-foot prints of your nether regions.
Such is the sad fate of Clara, the central character in Black & White, Dani Shapiro’s new middle-class-family-meets-art-world melodrama. Clara is just a babe of 3 when her mother, photographer Ruth Dunne, makes her the subject of a series of provocative Sally Mann–type portraits that catapult both mother and daughter to stardom. Although Clara grows increasingly uncomfortable with the attention, Ruth continues the series for more than a decade, even as her obsessive focus on her child as camera-candy threatens both her marriage to her protective attorney husband and her relationship with both of her teenage daughters.
Just how bad does it get? Think Mommy Dearest with a Hasselblad.
A gifted storyteller with graceful instincts, Ms. Shapiro has discovered a rich subject in the mother/artist high-wire act, but the story she tells lacks the nuance promised by the premise. The world is full of happy families and fucked-up families, yes—but generally neither are happy nor fucked-up in such predictable ways.
In fact, it takes only 15 pages to begin to wonder whether Ms. Shapiro harbors a grudge against New York: Why else would she fill her book with the worst of our urban stereotypes? Rather than sculpting three-dimensional characters out of action and idiosyncrasy, Ms. Shapiro clings to tired shorthand: The Dunnes live on the top floor of the Apthorp, so they’re confirmed as part of the 80’s artsy elite. Clara’s older sister, Robin, hurt by the attention Ruth lavished on her younger daughter, grows up to be … you guessed it: a cold, brittle lawyer (like her father) with a personal shopper at Barneys on speed dial. Plot points are similarly calculated: At the height of Ruth’s notoriety, a predatory New York Post reporter accosts Clara on her way to class at Brearley; the long-suffering hubby is stricken down by a sudden (and no doubt Ruth-induced) heart attack; and Clara, at 18, finally flees New York, unable to bear the public (pubic) exposure any longer.
Fourteen years later, Clara—now married and a mother herself—is still in hiding from her family and her former life as “the girl in those pictures” (though, ensconced on Mount Desert Island, it’s a very picturesque, “country-house” kind of hiding) when a sudden call from Robin summons her home to the family hearth high above Broadway, where a still-defiant Ruth is succumbing to lung cancer. Much interior drama ensues, in rivers of italicized angst, as Clara tries to explain her secret past to her own young daughter and wrestles with whether to return to New York and the mother she swore never to forgive.
In the end, though neither character truly changes her stripes, even the deepest scars start to fade. Still, the cover closes with the lingering impression of a moment lost, a decisive shot wasted. A great picture may indeed be worth a thousand words—but in Black & White, it’s hardly worth 256 pages.
Sarah Karnasiewicz is a deputy editor at Salon.com.