TRACY GUZEMAN author of THE GRAVITY OF BIRDS
In this compelling debut novel, an art authenticator and an art historian are employed by a famous, reclusive painter to sell a never-before-seen portrait, leading them to discover devastating secrets two sisters have kept from each other, and from the artist who determined the course of their lives.
Forty-four years after Alice and Natalie Kessler first met the brilliant young painter, Thomas Bayber, Bayber unveils a never-before-seen work, Kessler Sisters—a provocative painting depictingthe young Thomas, Alice, and Natalie. Bayber asks Dennis Finch, an art history professor, and Stephen Jameson, an eccentric young art authenticator, to sell the painting. But their task becomes more complicated when the artist requires that they first locate Alice and Natalie, who seem to have disappeared. [READ MORE]
Alice haunted the mossy edge of the woods, lingering in patches of shade, waiting to hear his Austin-Healey throttling down as he sped along the utility road separating the state park from the string of cabins rimming the lake. But there was only the conversation of buntings in the cathedral of branches overhead. The vibrant blue males darted deeper into the trees when she blew her own sweet-sweet chew-chew sweet-sweet up to theirs. Pine seedlings brushed against her pants as she pushed through the understory, their green heads vivid beneath the canopy. She had dressed to fade into the forest; her hair was bundled up under a long-billed cap, her clothes drab and inconspicuous.
When at last she heard his car, she crouched behind a clump of birch and made herself as small as possible, settling into a shallow depression of ferns and leaf litter. Balancing her birding diary and a book of poetry in her lap, she peeled spirals of parchment from the trunks and watched as he wheeled into the graveled parking space at the head of his property.
He shut off the engine but stayed in the convertible and lit a cigarette, smoking it slowly, his eyes closed for so long she wondered if he had fallen asleep or perhaps into one of his moody trances. When he finally unfolded himself out of the cramped front seat, he was as straight and narrow as the trunks behind him, the dark, even mass of them swallowing his shadow. Alice twitched, her left foot gone to pins and needles. The crunch of brush beneath her caused no more disturbance than a small animal, but he immediately turned to where she was hidden and stared at a spot directly above her head while she held her breath.
“Alice,” he whispered into the warm air. She could just hear the hiss of it, could barely see his lips moving. But she was sure he had said her name. They had that in common, the two of them; they were both observers, though of different sorts.
He lifted a single paper bag from the passenger seat, cradling it close to his chest, almost lovingly. Bottles, she decided, thinking of her father and his many trips back and forth between the car and their own cabin, carefully ferrying the liquor he’d brought, enough for a month’s worth of toasts and nightcaps and morning-after hair-of-the-dogs.
Damn locals mark their inventory up at the first sign of summer people, her father had said. Why should I pay twice for something I’m only going to drink once? No one was going to get the better of him.
So there’d been bottles of red and white wine, champagne, Galliano and orange juice for her mother’s Wallbangers, vodka and gin, an assortment of mixers, one choice bottle of whiskey, and several cases of beer. All of which had been cautiously transported in the same fashion Thomas Bayber now employed.
She waited until he’d navigated the short flight of flagstone steps and the screen door banged shut behind him before she moved, settling down on the ground cushioned with needles. She scratched at a mosquito bite and opened the book of poetry to read it again. Mrs. Phelan, the librarian, had set it aside for her when it first came in.
“Mary Oliver. No Voyage and Other Poems. My sister sent it to me from London, Alice. I thought you might like to be the first to read it.”
Mrs. Phelan fanned the pages recklessly, winking at Alice as though they were conspirators. “It still has that new book smell.”
Alice had saved the book for the lake, not wanting to read any of the poems until she was in exactly the right surroundings. On the dock that morning, she’d grabbed a towel that was still faintly damp and smelled of algae, and stretched out on her stomach, resting on her elbows as she thumbed through the book. The glare of sunlight off the crisp pages gave her a headache, but she stayed where she was, letting the heat paint her skin a tender pink. She kept reading, holding her breath after each stanza, focusing on the language, on the precise meaning of the words, regretting that she could only imagine what had been meant, as opposed to knowing with any certainty. Now the page with the poem “No Voyage” was wrinkled, pocked from specks of sand, its corner imprinted with the damp mark of Alice’s thumb. I lie like land used up . . . There were secrets in the lines she couldn’t puzzle out.
If she asked, Thomas would decipher the poem for her, without resorting to the coddling speech adults often used, choosing vague words and pretending confusion. The two of them bartered their knowledge during her visits. He schooled her in jazz, in bossa nova and bebop, playing his favorites—Slim Gaillard, Rita Reys, King Pleasure, and Jimmy Giuffre—for her while he painted, stabbing the air with his brush when there was a particular passage he wanted her to note. In turn, she showed him the latest additions to her birding diary—her sketches of the short-eared owl and American wigeon, the cedar waxwing and late warblers. She explained how the innocent-looking loggerhead shrike killed its prey by biting its quarry in the back of the neck, severing the spinal cord before impaling the victim on thorns or barbed wire and tearing it apart.
“Good grief,” he said, shuddering. “I’m in the clutches of an avian Vincent Price.”
She suspected their conversations only provided him with reasons to procrastinate, but she made him laugh with her descriptions of the people in town: Tamara Philson, who wore her long strand of pearls everywhere, even to the beach, after reading of a burglary in the neighboring town; the Sidbey twins, whose parents dressed them in matching clothes, down to the barrettes in their hair and the laces in their sneakers, the only distinguishable difference between the two being a purple dot Mr. Sidbey had penned onto the earlobe of one.
You, Alice, Thomas said, are my most reliable antidote to boredom.
She peered through the birch trunks toward the back of the house.
If she waited too long before knocking, he might start working, and then she risked interrupting him. His manner would be brisk, his sentences clipped. He was like a feral animal that way, like the cats at home she tried to entice from behind the woodpile and capture. She would never have gone over without an invitation—one had been extended, after all, in general terms—but even so, she had found it best to approach him cautiously.
Come over and visit, he’d said to her family that first day, introducing himself on the dock the properties shared, appearing from the woods to retrieve the frenzied dog that circled his feet. But introductions weren’t necessary—at least not on his part. They knew exactly who he was.
Soon to come.
I had to buy The Gravity of Birds because it is completely original. I dearly loved some characters, deeply resented others. Parts of it are funny; other parts border on the gothic. The pace is swift. The writing is beautiful and brilliant, from the opening image to the very last revelation. It is part mystery, part psychological drama, and part love story. It is a sister story centering on a love match thwarted by one sister’s jealousy of the other. Years later, a melancholy art history professor and a brilliant young art authenticator who has already destroyed his own career are summoned by a famous, reclusive painter and asked to go in search of two of his valuable missing paintings depicting the sisters. By the end of the book, we discover that all of these people are connected in ways we, and they, would never have imagined.
But describing this book doesn’t tell you how I feel about it. Sometimes, when you finish a book, a really good book, you’re sad that you’ve finished and you’ll never have that first read again. Then, after a minute, you start thinking who you’ll share it with. I love giving this book to people to read. I love the jacket the art department so carefully designed for it; I think it shows how they feel about this book. I love the three broken misfits at the center of the story, even though each is persistently successful in being his or her own worst enemy. I love knowing the ending when you don’t.
This is the debut of a writer who comes to public attention later in life. Tracy Guzeman told me she’s always writing stories while managing her own corporate marketing business. She’s been published in small literary magazines and is a Pushcart nominee, but when a writing teacher read a portion of this novel, she called her New York literary agent, and here we are.
So this is me handing you The Gravity of Birds to read. Open to that scene of Alice standing in the woods, and see if you aren’t swept in. We can talk on the other side.