FEAST YOUR EYES, by Myla Goldberg. Scribner, 326 pp., $28.
"Feast your eyes, America. Here she is: America's Worst Mother, America's Bravest Mother, America's Worst Photographer, or America's Bravest Photographer — depending on who's talking."
So begins the exhibition catalog of the work of the late Lillian Preston, a famous — and fictional — photographer. It consists of 118 photographs and artifacts, briefly described — "Woman at the window, New York, 1953"; "Cardboard box containing 100 contact sheets marked with grease pencils, 1968-1969" — each with commentary by her daughter, Samantha Jane Preston, or by someone in Lillian's life, or with excerpts from Lillian's own letters and journals.
With cleverness and imagination, vivid historical detail and great heart, this catalog tells the story of Lillian's life. It's the story of a quiet, unassuming girl from Cleveland who became an obsessive renegade artist in New York, hopelessly tangled in the evolving sensibilities of the art world and the American public in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, engaging issues of free speech and obscenity, women's rights and abortion.
Lillian Preston also represents an exciting turn of events in the career of her creator, Myla Goldberg. After getting off to a bang-up start with her bestselling 2000 debut, "Bee Season," Goldberg published two novels that didn't do well with the critics or the public. A nine-year silence followed. Now she has reemerged with a stunning success, what feels like the book she was always meant to write.
I certainly felt like it was the book I was meant to read — the first novel that has brought me to tears in a long time, out of the intensity of my involvement with its characters and concerns, which revolve around the tension between being a mother — a single mother — and being an artist.
Samantha was the subject of her mother's most controversial work, a series of photographs of the little girl nude or in her underwear, in the bathtub, eating a Popsicle, having a tea party. In the most provocative photo — titled "Mommy is sick, Brooklyn,1961" — Samantha is offering her weakly smiling mother a glass of milk as Lillian lies in bed with a bloodstain between her legs, in the aftermath of an illegal abortion. A gallery show of the images resulted in legal proceedings and the Daily News headline "Judge Rules…MOMMY IS SICK."
The list of consequences Lillian suffered for this error in judgment was long and cruel, but the worst of them was alienation from her daughter. The narrative arc of the catalog is the unfolding and resolution of Samantha's feelings about her mother's life and death.
The bitterness of the story is leavened by the humor and directness of Samantha's voice. She is an irresistible character. She writes of finally looking, after many years, in a cardboard box her mother left for her and finding love letters to a high school boyfriend who went off to the Korean War. Why did she wait so long? "Not that I considered her photo boxes any more sacred than her underwear drawer, but at the time of my rabidly dysfunctional adolescence (not to be confused with my rabidly dysfunctional adulthood), fooling with those boxes would have implied an interest in her photography."
Of her experiences in public school after the publicity about the Samantha Series hit: "Two days before Kennedy got shot, Gordy Cardoza told me I was a perv and my mother was a baby killer, which gave me a chance to deploy the back fist strike I'd been practicing."
We also get to know many of the other players in Lillian's life from first-person testimony that Samantha has collected for the catalog. Among them are her first two roommates in New York, another unconventional mom she meets on the playground, her high school boyfriend and her radical, stubborn and brave gallerist, Nina Pagano. "The whole thing was just bum luck and lousy timing," Nina tells us of her and Lillian's arrest. "Pandering obscenity and illegal use of a minor? That's dirty-old-man stuff."
In the Acknowledgments, Goldberg credits many influences: Sally Mann (who photographed her children nude), Vivian Maier (whose work was recognized only after her death), Helen Levitt (a pioneering street photographer), Grace Paley (an artist as well as activist) and others.
By the time I finished this book, Lillian Preston seemed as real to me as any of them, and I will remember her as long. Through its intense focus on a series of photographs, a group of quirky characters and a particular time in our cultural history, "Feast Your Eyes" becomes a universal and profound story of love and loss.