three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
By: 
Ward Just
user_rating: 
0

A-Rodins Debutante.epsThis is the 17th novel by American novelist and short story writer Ward Just. Reviewed: Exiles in the Garden (4 of 5 Stars Selection Sept/Oct 2009), Forgetfulness (4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2006), and An Unfinished Season (4 of 5 Stars Selection Sept/Oct 2004)

The Story: Rodin? No. Debutante? No. Despite the title, a sculptor is the center of this coming-of-age novel. Most of the book concerns Lee Goodell, a small-town boy whose family moves to Chicago after a violent incident sullies the reputation of the area where he grew up. Lee eventually becomes a sculptor, but Rodin's Debutante is just as much about the people and events who influence the young man's artistic path. The book's opening, for example, tells the story of the eccentric millionaire who founded the school he attends in Chicago; we also enter the mind of a free-spirited teacher who plans to run away to Patagonia. But these disparate pieces eventually reunite in Lee's own works of art.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 272 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780547504193

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The book traces the life of Lee Goodell, son of a conservative small-town judge, as he makes his way amid a world of secrets and hidden sins to become an artist, eventually creating a series of statues that reflect the stages of an absorbing and tumultuous life story. ... Ultimately, it's Just who expertly sculpts Tommy, Ogden Hall, and Lee, scars and all, and eventually Just resurrects Lee's distant past to confront him and to haunt the reader with a story that's among Just's best." Joseph Peschel

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"We follow [Goodell's] life, witnessing the two acts of violence that change him. Rodin's Debutante is a surprising story, never going where you expect it to, and Just's spare prose packs a solid emotional punch." Sara Vilkomerson

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"From the early pages of Rodin's Debutante, his 17th novel, I had the feeling that there would be no false steps, that my guide through the neighborhoods and commutable suburbs of Chicago would be reliable. And so it turned out--this is a very satisfying novel. Yet I rarely was able to tell where I was heading." Tom Zellman

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Rodin's Debutante is an achievement. Into a couple of hundred fast-moving pages, it compacts an impressive array of characters, settings, ideas and scenes, including a superb account of the aftermath of a winning football season that fuses the romanticism of the early Kerouac and his mentor, Thomas Wolfe, with the wry humor of Richard Yates." Steven Heighton

Seattle Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The writing is splendid, the scene impeccably set--but you can't help wondering where the novel is heading and what, exactly, it's about. ... Increasingly, the narrative goes from enjoyably unpredictable to bafflingly random." Michael Upchurch

Critical Summary

"What a masterful storyteller Ward Just is!" exclaimed the Minneapolis Star Tribune, mirroring general sentiment. All critics appreciated Ward Just's realistic prose and the themes that run through much of his work, such as the alienation of characters who move from small towns to cities. They also thought the characters dreamed up for Rodin's Debutante were superbly realized. However, they expressed different feelings about the book's plot structure. Some reviewers thought Just had brilliantly reconceptualized the K├╝nstlerroman (or a novel about the maturation of an artist) by abandoning many of the clich├ęs of the coming-of-age narrative. But some, while appreciating what Just was trying to do, felt that the relationships between the various people and places in the book were just too confusing to enjoy.