Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg

9781501197840I’ve been thinking a lot about books written in unusual formats, and this is one. Of course there are letters (whole-book or series), but that’s hardly unusual, or new. This book is written as the catalogue to a photography exhibition of the work of Lillian Preston, a woman photographer in New York in the 60’s and 70’s, and through the material included with each of the 118 photos, presented in chronological order, a totally coherent–and gripping–narrative emerges. There are a number of different sources in the “catalogue.” Each picture includes some recollections and commentary by Lillian’s daughter, Samantha Preston (later known as Jane), who has assembled the exhibition after her mother’s death. And she, the daughter, is clearly the dominant voice; there are a few letters Lillian wrote to friends, but most of the remaining material comes either from Lillian’s journal, which she always wrote addressed to Samantha, or from interviews Samantha conducted herself with Lillian’s friends. All of this makes clear, through structure, that the daughter is our anchor.

The Kirkus Reviews headline for its review is “A riveting portrait of an artist who happens to be a woman.” Sure, Kirkus, if it has nothing to do with gender when the central struggle of your life is the pull of family, and especially your own child, against your art, you have to fight tokenism and pigeonholing to find a place for your work, the defining moment of your career concerns a photo reflecting an illegal abortion, and your life is upended by a court battle concerning a photo of your child in which you are blasted in the media as a “bad mother.” Sure, our culture’s consistent resistance to considering everything on its merits without gender labels is a topic in this book, and it’s an important issue to address, but this particular story is not separable from the artist’s gender. Not even a little bit.

Lilian is clearly conflicted, but she remains committed to her art first, and the book is largely about what that does to her child (and her parents). If, later in life, the child understands, is all forgiven? It has notes of a non-screwball version of Kevin Wilson’s recurrent theme about parents. And yet, after a crisis, Lillian does alter her artistic course to protect her daughter (although how voluntary that is is debatable), without great success at mending the relationship. I suppose we’re back, as always, to “You can’t have it all.”

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