Tuesday, October 7, 2014

FIGURES OF BEAUTY is a novel about marble and human emotion, what is timeless and enduring

David McFarlane's FIGURES OF BEAUTY (Harper, Oct.) is a novel about youth's passion in the sensual Old World and maturity in the tepid New World. What makes the story unique is the role of marble, which links characters of different eras to the same town, Pietrabella, in Carrera, Italy. Whether Michelangelo actually got his marble there is disputed but not the quality of the stone. It's beauty, and the ancient techniques of local miners, remain unchanged.

The marble is wrested from the ground and transported to lower ground, often at great cost to the men of the town. Danger is always present, yet they are proud of the industry. For centuries, Carrera's marble has gone around the world for monuments and facades, urinals and sinks. The streets of the town are marble, as are the cutting boards. Among the locals miners and craftsmen are sculptors, like Anna, who lives to carve marble. Her understanding of life is through her work and she's happiest covered in marble dust, mallet in hand.

While Anna's passion for marble is creative, Julian Morran's is both aesthetic and mercantile. In 1922, he is the owner of the marble mines and workshops of the town. A sophisticated Scottish businessman, Morran found fulfillment in the unpretentious Italian town. His talent as salesman meant prosperity and fame, since no opportunity was ever lost to export the stone. When he encounters the honeymooning Bartons, a Canadian newspaper magnate and his art critic wife, he finds soul mates, who make their home into a duplicate of his very tasteful estate.

This includes a marble pool and a mysterious statue of a woman with a jug, that may date before the Romans. In 1968, when Anna meets Oliver Hughson, that statue is outside her rented farmhouse on the same site. And it will figure in their destiny.
Oliver is vagabonding in Europe, when he must flee Paris and fatefully decides to look up an acquaintance in Carrera. He falls in love with Anna, shares her Bohemian life of art, food and friends, even occasionally modelling for money. Though entirely different from what he's know, Oliver has never been as comfortable in his life. He wants to be a writer and live with Anna, when he learns he must leave to help his adopted parents.

Anna is furious that he would walk away from something so good. She knows it's the worst mistake of their lives, though Oliver doesn't realize this until later. Anna never answers his letters, she never tells him he fathered a daughter. In 2013, that adult daughter, a writer, goes to Canada to track down the father she never knew and the stories that led to her birth. Hers is the first and the last narratives of FIGURES OF BEAUTY.

In intermittent chapters, FIGURES OF BEAUTY tells Anna's story, as a single Bohemian mother in a traditional town, as well as her birth, in 1944, during the German occupation and a horrendous event. There is Oliver's story about the cost of passion denied; a life of yearning despite decades without contact. There's his career as an art critic, taking care of his parents, then the final chance for happiness, after discovering the daughter he never knew.

Along with these lives, there is the story of one family of workmen, who paid the ultimate price. After a fateful accident, their son, Lino, became a carver of marble and, later an independent craftsman in America. His story is a linchpin to the fate of others in this well crafted and feeling novel.

In McFarlane's FIGURES OF BEAUTY, the figures are the intertwined lives of characters of great feeling. Like hidden fault lines in marble, which can split a stone apart, the figures in this novel are torn by what is unknown or lost. Together, they weave a human story of beauty and power.

As art student in Rome, I went to Carrera and picked out a piece of marble. I eagerly learned carving techniques, spending months gaining the muscle to release what I saw inside the stone. Half through, the stone split diagonally, and all was lost. In this book, I learned that no one could predict a fault, not even Michelangelo. But he knew the right paste to hold it together.