Friday, July 30, 2010

The Birth of an Artist

This week I read a short story in the New Yorker that I felt was perhaps the most amazing story I ever read. Since I would kill to write a story this good, I've decided to share it here by way of my own retelling. I only ever wrote a short story once, myself, about the time I bought a dog home from the pound after moving to my mountain retreat in Blacksburg. I fell in love with the dog, which I named Woogie, only to decide after three months that I lacked the necessary caretaking gene to keep it. This story, too, is about finding and then losing love. Called "La Vita Nuova" by Allegra Goodman, it can be found in the May 3rd issue of the News Yorker.

The day after Amanda's fiance ignominiously dumps her, declaring that he finds her a very dark person and feels suffocated by her, Amanda takes her vintage wedding dress to the Garden School in Cambridge where she teaches art, theater, puppets, storytelling, drumming, dance, and fabric painting to children. Carefully, she spreads the white satin gown on the floor for her students to decorate--an exercise which eventually leads to her teaching contract not being renewed. "Your personal life is not an appropriate art project for first grade," the principal tells her, letting her know that the school is moving in a different direction.

Amanda then gets a job baby-sitting Nathaniel, aged six. They spend their days going places together, and their daily outings become a form of hypnotic enchantment for the reader. They eat chocolate mice at Burdick's and then stand in front of the Harvard Coop, listening to Peruvian musicians. They explore the cemetery, where Amanda tells Nathaniel that the gravestones are dragons' teeth. They take the T train to Boston and stand in line for the swan boats in the Public Garden, which turn into real swans at night, according to Amanda. They watch Charlie Chaplin movies rented from Hollywood Express, while eating pizza and pop corn. They go canoeing on the Charles River and write a story book together about pirates. They have a conversation about donuts, and study the red ants of Buckingham Street, feeding them cake crumbs.

The only cloud over these ecstatic days is that Nathaniel's father has become sexually attracted to her and is surreptiously making unwanted overtures. Amanda finds him creepy. Meanwhile her family, especially her father, begins to wonder what she plans on doing with her life. After all, he says, "I paid for Yale."

One day, after a walk to Harvard Square to watch the street musicians, Amanda and Nathaniel share summer rolls and Thai iced tea, which Nathaniel thinks tastes like orange chalk. They end up in a store called Little Russia, where they discover lacquered babushka dolls, nested one inside the other in decreasing sizes. Inspired, Amanda orders a set of blank wooden dolls online and begins to paint them in acrylic, adding the necessary high gloss afterwards. At the beginning, the dolls represent different stages in the narrative of her life, but her repertoire then expands as she builds up a body of work. Eventually she imagines herself living in New York City, becoming an artist, and having shows.

Summer arrives, and Nathaniel is scheduled to go to the Cape with his father. Amanda declines the invitation to go with them, announcing instead that she has decided to move to New York. As a special present for Nathaniel, she has created a handmade map of all the places they had visited together, and the things they'd done there. Realizing he is losing Amanda, Nathaniel goes berserk with grief. He tears the map. No one can get him to stop sobbing. Amanda takes him in her arms and rocks him, saying quietly, "I know, I know."

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