THE SEARCH FOR A TRIPTYCH GROUP PORTRAIT ENDS IN FAMILY REUNION
IN TRACY GUZEMAN’S The Gravity of Birds (2013), the artist theme is strong and the three main characters are obvious. They are two rivalrous sisters and an older painter named Thomas Bayber, whose sexual escapades will seal everyone’s fate.
Yet in this novel, keep your eye on a fourth character in particular, an art authenticator named Stephen Jameson. He is the surprise in the end.
The story begins in 1963 with the summertime encounter between the sisters and the painter at a lakeside resort in New England. Presently, the novel goes fast-forward, giving most of its attention to the threesome's grown-up lives in 2007. In that present time, we first meet Jameson, and for some reason he merits quite a bit of biographical background.
Something is afoot with Jameson, it seems. Even so, he remains an enigma as the story of the artist Bayber and the two sisters travels a predictable storyline of love affairs and jealousies. We are never quite sure why we're being told Jameson's backstory, let alone about his dicey emotional life.
By 2007, Bayber is a famous artist, a recluse in his seventies who is about to die. He discloses an unknown painting of his, which is missing its two wings (it’s a triptych). He asks his loyal biographer, an art historian named Mr. Finch, to contact Jameson the art authenticator and together find the two sisters. It is presumed that they have the other parts of the painting, which will be worth millions at an art auction.
The sisters are Natalie and Alice. We met them in 1963 in their early teens. Natalie is attractive yet troubled. Alice is the intelligent younger sister bound for academic work in ornithology (thus the “bird” title). Alice is crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, though, and will have to give up her professional pursuit.
The only physical action in the story is the research and travels of Finch and Jameson as they try to find the grown women (although in flashback, there is an Alice-giving-birth scene during a Hurricane!). The search for the sisters finally takes Finch and Jameson to Tennessee and New Mexico. They have professional and financial motives to piece together the triptych, while Bayber is apparently trying to reconcile something with Natalie and Alice.
At the outset, Stephen Jameson’s ties to Bayber are nonexistent, with a small exception. Jameson’s father, Dylan Jameson, had owned a popular SoHo art gallery in New York. He had helped promote the career of Bayber, who rose to success as a painter and art-scene playboy.
A main feature of Stephen Jameson is his unhappiness about his late parents, and particularly his father. Stephen is cerebral and awkward. When he made bad decisions in life, his father Dylan gave more scold than hugs, such that “the distance between them seemed cavernous.” Stephen constantly feels an emotional void. Hmm. Interesting!
He is not the only unhappy person in this Gravity of Birds saga. The novel opens with a lengthy poem. We thus know we're entering “literary fiction,” a story of deep meaning and overwrought prose. Readers will differ on whether there is too much of this, of course. The characters seem in perpetual states of sadness, epiphany, anxiety, or regret. In between, mundane life is described in remarkable (or excruciatingly literary) detail—from eating airplane peanuts to the bath oils in a shower.
In writing an art novel, Guzeman has also embraced the challenge of inventing several kinds of artworks. She then describes not only how they look, but the feelings that characters have upon seeing this painting or that sculpture.
The analysis of artworks is a necessary part of the story. That is because the author uses the triptych—a group painting of Bayber, Natalie, Alice, and Alice’s daughter—as a pictorial symbol of the sexual tension between them. The story narrative explains their relationship well enough. But the use of a painting as a symbol introduces an element of artistic melodrama: What dark family secret does the painting reveal?
The secret is this: Around 1963, Natalie was promiscuous. When she got pregnant (not by Bayber), her parents made her get an abortion. She became sterile and thus could never find a husband. Around 1972, Bayber gets Alice pregnant. It's a one-night stand, so they never meet again, though Bayber puts bird images in his paintings, suggesting he misses Alice, who never tells Bayber of the child.
When Natalie notices the pregnancy, she hates Alice for her fertility. So when the daughter is born, Natalie tricks Alice to think the child is stillborn. She secretly sends the infant off to grow up with a loyal housekeeper. As characters, Natalie is remarkably revengeful and Alice equally naïve. Thomas Bayber, meanwhile, is hardly a tragic figure; he’s a selfish rogue, now enervated by excess and age.
What, then, is Stephen Jameson? He and Finch track down Alice, Natalie (who has died by 2007), and Alice’s daughter. This familial context prompts Jameson to dwell on his own family, or lack thereof.
Lo and behold, however, his family also has a dark secret—about to be revealed.
As Finch is taking evidentiary photos of the two lost art panels, he decides to snap one of Alice’s daughter with Stephen. “Something’s wrong here,” Finch says. Then he “pulled the camera away and looked at the two more closely, his heart in this throat.” They look alike. Indeed, Alice's lost daughter and the lonely Stephen are actually brother and sister, Thomas Bayber being their father. Finch says, “So this is the reason he’d [Bayber] insisted on Stephen” authenticating the lost paintings.
The melodrama persists. Suddenly the aged Bayber dies with the photos in his hands. Alice has found her daughter (and vice versa). The widowed Finch (he laments his wife’s death throughout the novel) may have a new girlfriend. And Stephen Jameson has found both his genetic father, Bayber, and his half-sister. (At some point in the past, in other words, the promiscuous Bayber had lain with the wife of Dylan Jameson, the SoHo gallerist and non-biological father of Stephen).
The novel is rich in artistic detail and ambiance. But it is far richer in its constant mix of bad fortune, sudden good fortune, and enough coincidence to make even Charles Dickens blush, but not too strongly.