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Posted on 28 Sep 2023 in Fiction |

ANNA KATE BLAIR The Modern. Reviewed by Jessica Stewart

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Set in New York, Anna Kate Blair’s debut novel explores the art of curation, sexuality, modernism, and knowing one’s own mind. 

This is a novel to savour, its language crystalline, its acute observations tumbling one after the other. In the opening paragraph, Sophia sits at her computer terminal ‘shining the sentences’ for display labels. An Australian, she has moved to the east coast of America where she completed her PhD and now she is nearing the end of a post-doctoral fellowship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

She has just become engaged to Robert and the couple seem poised to enter a sophisticated future as they apply for jobs in academia and the art world. They are surrounded by art and beauty; ‘in the evenings, we met for dinner at small restaurants with short menus’. This is a veneer, however, disguising Sophia’s juvenile naivety and deep-seated sense of inadequacy. Blair asks what defines maturity: is it respectability, financial independence, security in partnership, liberation from convention? For Sophia, it is always just out of reach, the bar constantly raised.

The story unfolds slowly. We learn that when she left Australia, Sophia had left behind a relationship with a woman that she did not value; she had been determined to start afresh for reasons that are never fully explained. She soon befriends Robert and when this becomes something more, she does not resist, admitting that she has fallen in love. Yet she also shies away from the relationship. She is embarrassed by her prospective marriage and wants the community of her queer friends, especially her colleagues. She yearns to be accepted, to be loved by them. She prickles when one colleague says he hates straight people going to Pride.

Robert walks the Appalachian Trail over the summer, and it is during this temporary separation that Sophia becomes obsessed with a younger woman, Cara. She wants the electricity that comes with a ‘crush’ – the very word signalling a return to adolescence. Cara is also an artist, working in a wedding boutique where she is free to draw in the quiet moments, which are most of the time.  She has just finished her undergraduate degree and Sophia is drawn to her uninhibited youthfulness. Sophia imagines a relationship with Cara and over the course of the book she considers what marriage would entail – to Robert, but also to Cara, and then what a lifelong relationship with everyone in her circle would look like. It is an intriguing thought experiment.

Sophia is angling for a permanent job at the Museum as an assistant curator and the novel asks us to consider performance, curation, as opposed to what is real. Sophia attempts to curate moments around her and is confused when people do not behave as she would like. Always looking for something beyond, Sophia cannot see what is in front of her. In one scene, she savours the sharing of an umbrella, ‘as if we were living together in a small, domed house. Cara’s face was close to mine and softened in the diffused light.’ But Cara will not be stage-managed. She says, jarringly, ‘I hate umbrellas. It’s like you’re half inside the umbrella and half outside and all the rain gathers and rolls and pours all over your shoulders. Worst invention.’

Sophia’s object of study is Grace Hartigan, the American abstract expressionist painter who married multiple times, seemingly ‘prompted by some desire to leave’ – to find someone who could take her away.  Marriage can be transactional, Sophia knows. Robert could give her the visa she needs but she is also cognisant of Robert’s love for her, his many small kindnesses, unspoken intimacies and, more, she desires him; his body is a comfort to her. Yet this is not enough.  

There was a gap I couldn’t close, a degree to which he remained, despite our intimacy, inscrutable. I wondered if it was really possible to know another person.  

She picks over her relationship with Cara, looking for clues to its validity, feeling vulnerable and yet not knowing why. She scrolls her Instagram feed and catalogues the ‘practice of friendship’: making contact, setting dates, emailing, liking posts, yet she is unable to recognise real overtures when they are extended.

I wondered if Sally really meant it, if she wanted to be friends beyond work, or if she was simply saying it because she sensed my sadness.

In the beginning, we empathise with her fragility, but her obsession becomes tiresome. Again, she asks Cara about a perceived slight, again she asks why are they not friends. She has no self-awareness and is blind to the oddness of her behaviour. She loves Robert, who knows nothing of her attachment to Cara but she seems unable to believe in a future with him. When her friend and former lover, Emily, comes to stay, she holds a mirror to Sophia, revealing her host’s blinkered self-obsession.

Sophia’s work at the Museum interrogates the notion of modernity. Weber called it ‘the disenchantment of the world’, an observation that could fittingly apply to adulthood. Sophia watches the women of the Upper East Side, ‘intimidated by the degree to which older women seemed to know their own minds’. Her search for her own is the arc of The Modern, and its reward.

Anna Kate Blair The Modern Scribner 2023 PB 336pp $32.99

Jessica Stewart is a freelance writer and editor. She can be found at  www.yourseconddraft.com where she writes about editing, vagaries of the English language and books she’s loved.

You can buy The Modern from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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