Picks and Pans Review: Elizabeth Cole
by Susan Cheever
The title character of this novel, Cheever’s fifth, is art director at a New York City magazine. Although she’s a talented artist, she avoids her calling because that would mean measuring herself against her father, Aaron Cole, a famous painter. If you know that Cheever is the daughter of Pulitzer-prizewinning novelist John Cheever, after whose death in 1982 she wrote a candid memoir, Home Before Dark, the pieces start falling into place pretty fast.
Cheever has more on her mind than chewing through her relationship with her dad. Her book is also about obsessive love (Elizabeth’s for a married art dealer) and is a satire on the business practices of today’s booming art market.
In one chapter Cheever exactly catches the conversation and politics of a New York art opening, where “… ladies who have just charged $5,000 dresses refuse quarters to the beggars outside Bergdorfs and Bonwit’s.” Several supporting characters—a drug-and-alcohol-addicted femme fatale pal, a self-absorbed artist, a professorial suitor—are cleverly drawn.
In the end, though, one reads Elizabeth Cole for gossip value on the assumption that Cheever is writing as much about her own family life as she is about Elizabeth Cole’s. “There’s an intangible distance between my father and the rest of the world,” she writes, portraying Aaron Cole as an alcoholic who slept with his students and models. “Our parents alternated between rediscovered romantic love and bitter arguments punctuated with threats of divorce…. The only sin in our household was the failure to amuse.” There are amusing moments in Elizabeth Cole, but few genuinely touching ones. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $18.95)