The Plot: 1977. Merle, 18, is in Washington DC to attend the Corcoran School of Art. Art is her ticket out of nowheresville Virginia — but not the way some would think. Not in a make money or become famous way. Art is her way out because art is her life, it’s what she lives for, it’s what drives her.
1870. Arthur Rimbaud, 15, is running away from provincial Charleville, France to Paris. Poetry is what drives him and pushes him.
Separated by contents and a century, two artists struggle to find a way to express themselves, to leave a mark, to become.
The Good: OK, here’s the thing.
I just want you to go read this.
It is an amazing, awesome, scarily brilliant book. Scary because it is so flawless, so exciting, so magical. Scary because I’m not sure how to capture that magic and show it to you.
Hand pulls the curtain back to expose the magic of what makes someone an artist, a poet; and in the case of Merle and Arthur’s dual stories, which, yes, eventually intertwine, magic is at work. Both the magic of what they create and the magic that inspires. “Magic” for both can be as simple as a blank wall and spray can (Merle) and a pencil and scrap paper and the world around him (Arthur).
Magic is also a time in life: the time of becoming. Not just an artist; of becoming oneself. As Merle says, “[t]hose were radiant days, sun streaming through the scrim of new leaves on the ailanthus outside and igniting dust in the air once the rain stopped.” Neither Merle nor Arthur care much for material things. Merle rents a room with a mattress on the floor, basically squatting in a falling down house, her main concern her paintings and brushes and paint. Arthur repeatedly runs away from home, with little money in his pocket, and just a need to experience life to fuel his poetry.
So many magical quotes. Merle on what drives her to paint yet to also almost abandon her classes: “Clea said I need to learn the rules before I break them, but I think that’s total bullshit. That’s what my tag means — radiant days. Because right now I’m burning and live . . . So I only have this one day to paint, all these radiant days . . . ”
When Merle and Arthur try to understand their meshed worlds: “Have you ever noticed how minutes or hours seem to speed up sometimes, but other times they go really slow? And how you remember things that happened a long time ago and it was like only yesterday? Ever think that maybe it doesn’t just seem that way? That time really does speed up and slow down?”
There’s so much more here: the time periods and places; the affair between Merle and her teacher; Ted; but part of the magic of this book (and yes, I use this word over and over) is that it brings the reader into the story, so that the reader is with Merle and Arthur, feeling and believing what they do.
Yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012. Why? “What’s important is to keep your eyes open and keep moving. Don’t ever stop. And don’t look back. Looking back is deadly.”