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Book Review : A Novel That Paints a Bleak Picture of Art World

The Truth About Lorin Jones by Alison Lurie (Little, Brown: $18.95; 320 pages)

Polly Alter awoke one day a biographer by default and a feminist in spite of herself. The biography of an American woman painter who died in 1969 is the result of a research grant, a publishing contract and six months’ leave from her regular curator’s job at the Metropolitan Museum; the feminism a concomitant of finding herself unexpectedly divorced at the age of 39.

Before the novel actually gets under way, Polly had idled along, believing that her job and her marriage were both eminently satisfactory, if somewhat dull, but her husband’s acceptance of a promotion in Denver and the enthusiastic reception of her catalogue on three contemporary women artists abruptly changed all that. Polly’s work suddenly acquired a bright new luster while Jim’s stodgy image tarnished. When Polly refused to accompany him to Denver, convinced that the Rockies offered no opportunities to a woman of her abilities, Jim briskly made the break official, taking Polly somewhat by surprise. Now, alone in their denuded New York apartment with full responsibility for their 12-year-old son, Stevie, and the grant money shrinking, Polly is having seriously discomfiting second thoughts.

Feminism’s Fringe Elements

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To keep her misgivings at bay, she’s become increasingly involved with the more radical elements of the feminist movement and has begun to identify with the subject of her book, the enigmatic painter Lorin Jones, whose life seems to parallel Polly’s in several essential respects--a gifted woman condemned to obscurity by the wicked machinations of the male art establishment. The resulting novel is half biographical detective story, half a send-up of feminism. The first layer is moderately absorbing; the second sounds curiously dated in 1988, now that even the ragged fringes of the movement have been woven into the basic fabric and the misanthropic extremists of the 1960s have modulated their voices.

Polly manages to cope with her changed circumstances until her son goes West for a summer with his father. The holiday stretches into an entire school term, leaving Polly totally adrift on the sea of errant husbands, assorted creeps and other embittered women who make up the social circle of a New York divorcee. In this vulnerable position, she invites her friend Jeanne to move in with her, sure that Jeanne’s overt lesbianism will be no more of a problem than ever before, naively forgetting that “before,” Polly had a husband and son in residence to thwart any stray impulses.

At first, Jeanne is an asset, providing companionship, compassion and gourmet meals, but once Jeanne’s capricious lover, Betsy, joins the household, matters deteriorate rapidly. When Betsy finally abandons Jeanne, Polly is inevitably thrust into filling her role. That experiment turns out badly, eventually confirming Polly’s heterosexuality, but not before a considerable amount of talent and energy have been spent on satirizing the life styles of lesbians at the expense of the ostensible subject of the novel.

A Hectic Domestic Life

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The search for the real Lorin Jones proceeds in chapters alternating with the chronicle of Polly’s hectic domestic life. One after another, the friends, relatives, enemies, lovers and husbands of the elusive Jones are tracked down and interviewed, the interviews themselves providing the most clever and diverting parts of the book.

With the expertise of long acquaintance with the manners and morals of dealers, critics, professors and assorted art world sycophants, the author efficiently dispatches the entire lot of them, leaving no reputation in this novel intact. Readers familiar with the New York art scene skewered here may even imagine they recognize some of the characters, several of whom bear surely inadvertent but unmistakable resemblances to actual people, living and dead.

By the end of the novel, Polly Alter has painstakingly assembled the truth about the mercurial Lorin Jones, and in the process learned a great many equally disconcerting facts about herself--some heartening, others less so.

Ultimately, “The Truth About Lorin Jones” becomes a cautionary tale for would-be biographers, who can be in mortal danger of reliving the lives of their subjects, for better or worse.


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