Thank you to Scribner, Simon and Schuster, and Netgalley for an early review copy of Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon, which will publish February 6, 2018. All thoughts are my own.
From the publisher:
Lu Rile is a relentlessly focused young photographer struggling to make ends meet. Working three jobs, responsible for her aging father, and worrying that the crumbling warehouse she lives in is being sold to developers, she is at a point of desperation. One day, in the background of a self-portrait, Lu accidentally captures on film a boy falling past her window to his death. The photograph turns out to be startlingly gorgeous, the best work of art she’s ever made. It’s an image that could change her life…if she lets it.
But the decision to show the photograph is not easy. The boy is her neighbors’ son, and the tragedy brings all the building’s residents together. It especially unites Lu with his beautiful grieving mother, Kate. As the two forge an intense bond based on sympathy, loneliness, and budding attraction, Lu feels increasingly unsettled and guilty, torn between equally fierce desires: to use the photograph to advance her career, and to protect a woman she has come to love.
Set in early 90s Brooklyn on the brink of gentrification, Self-Portrait with Boy is a provocative commentary about the emotional dues that must be paid on the road to success, a powerful exploration of the complex terrain of female friendship, and a brilliant debut from novelist Rachel Lyon.
I have to be honest, I didn’t exactly know what I was getting into with Self-Portrait with Boy. I was initially drawn in by the stunning cover, and I’ve been craving an artistic read since I read I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson a few years ago, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.
One of the things I appreciated most about this novel was the characters. None of them were exactly likable, and Lu was probably the biggest anti-heroine I’ve ever read, but I became invested in each character and their relationships. They felt remarkably real; even Lu’s loft came across as a character of its own. For me, the best kind of story is that in which the atmosphere feels essential, and Self-Portrait with Boy is definitely one of those tales.
It was difficult to adjust to the quotation-less dialogue, but once I got past it I was able to immerse myself into the story and fully enjoy it, if “enjoy” is the right word. Self-Portrait with Boy was slow moving at first, but it eventually picked up at full speed and I found myself flying through it.
What really worked for me was the supernatural element. Lu is haunted by the ghost of the falling boy as she struggles to decide what to do with her self-portrait, either destroy it or find a place for it in a gallery; I believed this haunting to be a manifestation of her guilt, having grown close to the boy’s mother, Kate. It was a nice addition to the story, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.
All in all, Rachel Lyon’s debut, Self-Portrait with Boy, makes her a powerful voice to look out for.