If this novel were to take out an ad in the personals, that ad might read "absolutely must love domestic fiction". If, like me, you tend to equate domestic fiction with chick lit, please don't make that mistake here. Life Drawing is serious literary fiction, plumbing the depths of a long-term relationship and exposing the consequences of impulsive behavior.
As with all contemplative fiction, the plot is simply a vehicle for exploring human folly and the commonalities we share as flawed creatures. Augusta ("Gus") and Owen, a painter and a writer, have moved out to the country with the intention of rebuilding their bond in the wake of Gus's infidelity. They've made a lot of progress in that regard, but then Alison moves into the abandoned house nearby and changes the entire dynamic.
Gus's heartache about never having been a mother, her guilt over a brief affair, and her exasperation with Owen's writer's block lead her to share too much private information with Alison. Her indiscretions culminate in a dramatic climax that was the least realistic part of the book for me. But it's brief and it's blunt, and the rest of the book is masterful enough to overcome this slight weakness.
First-person narration can at times be cheesy or irritating, but I did not find that to be a problem in this novel. Gus is a reliable and realistic narrator. Whenever I felt irritated with her I had to step back and admit that she was making me squirm because yes, in her shoes I might have been just as petty and jealous and overreactive as she.
Gus tells us her story after Owen has died, with the sharpened focus and glaring perspective that comes only after we have lost someone we loved, and sometimes hated, too. While we are in a relationship with another, the dailiness of life with them prevents us from seeing them clearly, because "you cannot see a landscape you are in." Only when they're gone can the clear sight come and the honesty pour out, as we mourn and mine the lessons with no further need for defensiveness.
What Robin Black has done so adeptly in Life Drawing is show how our long-term relationships can flourish only in direct proportion to how much of the past we are willing to drop. The accumulation of love, affection, security, and shared history is often accompanied by a growing pile of old wounds, insults, disappointments, guilt, and blame. Gus and Owen truly do love each other, but they're always tiptoeing around that heap of old issues, and it makes them mistrustful and combative.
Congratulations to Robin Black for an insightful and tautly written first novel.