I remember the first time I came across Georgia O’Keeffe in high school art class. Her paintings of Southwestern-themed landscapes and cow skulls made an impression, but the color-saturated forms of her flower close-ups are images I can still see in my head. Her work is unique, brilliant. I love her poppies, their gigantic shapes and ripples and forms. Every time I see a Georgia O’Keeffe, I pause. I guess that would make me a lifelong fan.
When Dawn Tripp’s Georgia hit the literary scene, I saw the cover and immediately loved it. It is the perfect art for a novel based on Georgia O’Keeffe’s life, and probably will be my favorite cover this year. But for the story, I wasn’t so sure. I don’t often enjoy autobiographical historical fiction, as the voices imposed on the characters tend to be indulgent of the author’s obsession with a particular person of the past. I hesitated to begin Georgia for fear the novel would take me down roads I didn’t want to go with Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist. I didn’t want the novel to be a romanticized version of her life. Georgia O’Keeffe expressed herself and her life on her own terms. I didn’t want that to change in my mind.
Why did I pick up the book? I read a nice review from a respectable and unswayed source. She wasn’t a friend of the author, and likely chose Georgia because she authentically loved the book – much like what we try to do at Great New Books. I bought the book and hours after getting it home began reading. The first sentence sounded just like an artist: “I bought this house for the door.” I read on, through Georgia’s early beginnings, her poverty, and what drove her to New York City, where she met Stieglitz, who “discovered” her. I didn’t like him. And the more I read on, my dislike for Stieglitz increased. I had to continually ask myself why.
This is the masterful undercurrent Tripp wove into the novel Georgia, the disenchantment with a man who believes he has given Georgia it all. The narrative exposes gender politics at time when women’s rights had a different toehold on social dynamics. Women needed men to be their everything, and for a time, Stieglitz convinced Georgia it was true. It was this that kept me reading on. I had to find out how Georgia could come out from under a man so oppressive she lost sight of who she was, what she enjoyed, and what made her tick — for decades.
A powerful book is one that can help us see ourselves and our former or current states in the characters and the struggles they face. Georgia is one of those books. And then there is the language, lean and strong and perfect.
My favorite paragraph:
“The cottage feels empty, and the emptiness rings. Like a tingle under the skin. And for the first time in a dozen years, it occurs to me that perhaps Stieglitz is not my life, but a detour from it.”
The truth in those words have weight. And more …
“And then I remark coolly that art is, fundamentally, a personal struggle, and that women as a class are, fundamentally, oppressed.”
“A life is built of lies and magic, illusions bedded down with dreams. And in the end what haunts us most is the recollection of what we failed to see.”
In Georgia, there is no pretense, no romance, no false representation or glorification of a heroine from the past– there is only the beauty of a creative soul seeking to find her way to herself, and Tripp’s authentic voice pointing the way. Isn’t that what we all, at some point in our lives, seek to do? Find out who we are, what we are here for?
I loved Georgia. I’m sure it will be my favorite book of 2016.
This post has gone live today as well at GreatNewBooks.org. Please join in the conversation — especially if you have read Georgia. Thank you!