The Chalk Artist: A Novel by Allegra Goodman

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“He grew so intent on capturing her that sometimes he felt he had to get away from her.”

Some books remind you of things happening in your own life. With a daughter in college for Graphic Design and a son in college studying Game Design, the characters all felt familiar. Collin James is a chalk artist, he wipes away his art and it doesn’t last- nor does much else in his life. Naturally when Nina comes on the scene, love isn’t so easy to wash off. She sees in him so much potential and the need to change him, but for his own good. Isn’t it time he uses his amazing talent to his own benefit? I remember a discussion from class my daughter shared with me about how the moment art is saved it will never be fresh, new. It alters the creation, particularly when it’s reproduced, commercialized. Certainly there was more to the conversation, but most of us cringe thinking of art being erased. It reminds me of the beautiful sand mandalas the Buddhist monks create and destroy, of course that has to do with enlightenment, so I digress. Collin creates without demands and expectations attached, until Nina- the daughter of a tech mogul who has the edge on virtual reality gaming, knows she can help him get in the door. While it’s who you know, he has a gift, a very useful one in creating anything that can be drawn.

Nina is a school teacher, and while it’s true she could easily give up and still be safe with her family wealth, she truly cares about the job, the students. The problem is her freshness is the very thing students can smell and turn against. Enthusiastic or not, she isn’t reaching them, but Collin frees her and helps her find a new approach. He’s good for her, even if he doesn’t have ambitions, even if his apartment is squalid. Pushing him to work for her family company may sour their love, but if it’s helps him use his talent to make a life for himself, then it’s worth the risk. Nina doesn’t count on how much he will dive into the job, or the interest he will have in like minded co-workers. The company itself is like a wild beast, that may devour everything in it’s path, including the lovers.

Now for the students. Aidan and Diana are twins, and understand each other in ways not even their mother can divine. So while her brother is able to fool others, nothing gets past his sister, especially his addiction to the very virtual world that Nina wants her boyfriend Collin to work for, that her father’s company created. His addiction is growing like a disease, and he is not just being manipulated by virtual beings. Diana and her brother have always protected each other but can she save him now? Particularly when she is so lost herself and wants nothing more than to disappear. Once the twins were both full of energy and involved in sports until Diana changed, her body growing out as Aidan grew up. No amount of her mother Kerry’s wishing can change the heaviness that has settled over her body, and her heart. “Words could not change anything. ‘You’re a beautiful girl’ was like saying God is good. You didn’t say these things because they were true, you said them because you hoped the universe would take pity on you.’  Will it? Will the universe take pity on any of the characters within?

Using the students in this story works beautifully. It’s easy to cast your character as an idealistic teacher but better to show how her freshness rubs against the reality of students from backgrounds vastly different from her own. The ideal of a thing is always terrific, it’s the obstacles that are the problem. In fact, the same can be said for her vision for Collin. As Vikram Seth said, “God save us from people who mean well.” We step in it enough in our own lives to be thinking we can manage everyone else’s. Will Collin grow up? Will he use his artistry to finally be able to stand on his own or will he continue to wash away his days? Has Nina found her true calling in teaching, can she really reach these teens disinterested in dusty old literature, arts? Can you die of gaming addiction? Will Diana disappear or find herself? You’ll have to read to find out. For artists, gamers, misfits and anyone related to them.

Publication Date: June 13, 2017

Random House

The Dial Press

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