three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
By: 
Dani Shapiro
user_rating: 
0

A-Black & WhiteAt age 32, Clara Brodeur is happily married, living with her husband and daughter in Maine. She has abandoned all traces of her former self—Clara Dunne—the subject of a series of suggestive black-and-white photographs taken by her mother, Ruth, during Clara’s childhood. The provocative photos of naked Clara, controversial and hugely successful, elevated Ruth to the upper echelon of the New York art world—but caused deep resentment in Clara. When she learns that her mother is dying, Clara returns to Manhattan. Her absence unsettles her own daughter, who believed her grandmother was dead. Clara must address her relationship with her daughter as she decides whether or not to forgive Ruth.
Knopf. 256 pages. $24. ISBN: 0375415483

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"[Black & White is] sure to cause heated discussion around the book-club table. … Ms. Shapiro’s greatest accomplishment in Black & White is that she avoids making Ruth look like a complete monster; she comes off, instead, as a complex, selfish woman who simply allows her own needs to upstage those of her child." Joy Tipping

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The strength of this novel is its particularity, its specificity, whether Shapiro is raking over the changes wrought by the years to the Upper West Side or describing Clara’s sense of dislocation as she attempts to blend in with the other moms on the Maine island. … It’s no bad thing to close a book and still be left wondering what happens next." Erica Wagner

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The novel reminds us that the stories of our past are just constructs of how we’ve chosen to remember them. … [Shapiro] writes with an economy that draws the reader into the dramatic fray of the scenes, without the curse of melodrama." Adam Braver

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"[Ruth’s] single-minded pursuit of photographic perfection is scary but spot-on authentic. So is Shapiro’s cool depiction of a mother and daughter’s fraught and fiery relationship. … [Her] novel is no sappy Lifetime movie." Donna Freydkin

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The author charts the emotional disturbance of her characters’ past so precisely and astutely that one wishes for the same uncompromising storytelling to infuse the novel as a whole. Still, the ideas Shapiro grapples with resonate, and she raises trenchant and enduring questions that resist easy answers." Marisa Silver

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Shapiro’s presentation of Ruth’s image-making as child abuse seems overblown. … [I]n this novel, there are times when she seems to favor drama over nuance. Black-and-white takes precedence over shades of gray." Sarah Coleman

New York Observer 2 of 5 Stars
"A gifted storyteller with graceful instincts, Ms. Shapiro has discovered a rich subject in the mother/artist high-wire act, but the story she tells lacks the nuance promised by the premise. … Rather than sculpting three-dimensional characters out of action and idiosyncrasy, Ms. Shapiro clings to tired shorthand." Sarah Karnasiewicz

Critical Summary

Dani Shapiro "has developed a specialty in writing about difficult mother-daughter bonds" (San Francisco Chronicle). Yet while critics agreed that the relationship between Clara and her mother Ruth (who is loosely based on the photographer Sally Mann) presents a rich opportunity, they disagreed over Shapiro’s execution. Those praising the novel found the characters well drawn, but others thought the novel uneven, with a compelling storyline weighed down by the predictability of Clara’s emotional journey as an adult. The New York Observer even disparaged the novel for characters depicted with "tired shorthand" and for "calculated" plot points. Despite these criticisms, readers intrigued by the premise should take a look.

Also by the Author

Family History (2003): 3 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003. A 13-year-old girl comes home from summer camp a changed child. Now sullen and withdrawn, not to mention tattooed and pierced, she starts to tear apart her once-happy family.