“There are often two conversations going on in a marriage,” short-story writer Robin Black claims in her debut novel, Life Drawing. “The one that you’re having and the one that you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.” One could suggest that there are two conversations going on in this quiet, yet exquisitely crafted novel: the conversation between Augusta (Gus) and her husband Owen, and the conversation they’re not having, about Gus having cheated on him.
Black’s novel is primarily set in an idyllic farmhouse in Pennsylvania, where the couple has moved in order to work on their craft (Gus is a painter; Owen, a writer), and their marriage. Several years ago, during a bout of depression following the death of her sister, Gus had a brief—but extremely passionate—affair with Bill, the father of one of her art students. Determined to make her marriage work, Gus confessed her transgressions to Owen.
What Owen does not know is that Gus has been keeping in touch with Bill’s troubled yet talented daughter, Laine, for years. Keeping this secret weighs heavily on Gus. So when Alison Hemmings, a teacher-turned-painter, moves in next door, Gus finds the female confidante that she didn’t know she was looking for. Their friendship quickly deepens as Gus confides about her affair while Alison reveals her own stories about an abusive ex-husband and her 20-something daughter Nora’s recent turn to religion and writing.
What happens between the neighbors is both expected and yet full of surprises. Black takes precise care with her prose, drawing out the emotional conflicts between her characters as she asks whether a marriage can be saved after the ultimate betrayal. Though the slow pacing may frustrate readers, it’s all part of a buildup to a powerful conclusion. Life Drawing is a memorable debut.