A cursory glance at the title indicates that this is a book about a man. It is, and it isn't. Of course, the man of the title, Oscar Feldman, rather the late Oscar Feldman, a figurative painter, plays a role. But the starring parts are given to three women, Teddy, his mistress; Abigail Feldman, his widow; and Maxine Feldman, his sister. Each is being interviewed by two biographers who hope to tell Oscar's true story.
According to his obituary, Oscar died at the age of 78 after a prodigious career, which was totally devoted to the painting of female nudes. He remained apart from others in the artistic world, and once wrote, "The female body is the ultimate expression of truth and beauty..." His works were characterized by bold brush strokes, and came to be highly collectible.
After reading this, one can easily see why two biographers, Henry Burke and Ralph Washington, were intrigued, determined to find out the truth about Oscar Feldman. What better place to start than with his mistress, Teddy?
Now 70-some she is still an attractive woman, angular with chin length white hair and a ready wit. She's a bit of a tease and gives her friend, Lila, a start when she admits "I wouldn't mind seeing my old carcass in bed with a nubile forty-year-old body." She's come to terms with who she is now and what her life has been. She gave birth to Oscar's twin daughters, Ruby and Samantha, and basically raised them alone. Yet, she loved Oscar, enjoyed tweaking him in front of a gathering so he would show off. She adored him...did she also manipulate him? She seems to have had the upper hand when she says that she could share him but he could not share her.
Maxine is quite a different story. She, too, is an artist yet never received the acclaim that her brother did. She is an unhappy woman, who lives with her dog, Frago, and her assistant, Katerina. Not at all comfortable with who she is, Maxine wears thick glasses and thinks she looks like an "ugly dwarf like toad." She detested the thought of anyone writing a biography of Oscar......unless they might shed some light her way. Maxine fears she will die alone and forgotten; she longs for a much closer relationship with her years younger assistant.
Abigail, whom Teddy called "Oscar's fat wife" was the favored daughter of a multimillionaire furrier. The apartment she and Oscar shared, a gift from her father, was on 84th and Riverside. She knew her husband little, assuming he would give up the silly notion of being an artist and go into business with his father. What she did know was Teddy; she saw her at Oscar's openings. Of course, she was also extremely jealous but also curious. Now that Oscar was gone she ordered almost everything she wanted or needed via the Internet so that she rarely left the apartment and her autistic son, Ethan.
Christensen is such a skillful author that she leads readers along, tantalizes them with lively, astute prose until an important secret is revealed and the three women come together to decide what is to be done, what is to be told and what is not.
The Great Man won the Pen/Faulkner Award - deservedly so. It is a remarkable novel, rich with wit, keen observations, and characters we'll not soon forget.
- Gail Cooke