On paper, Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss, has all the hallmarks of a great story (for me, anyway) – the eighties, New York, and the interwoven lives of a group of people (who you soon discover are all connected to the blossoming Soho art-scene). While the book didn’t quite meet my neon-bright-skyscraper-high expectations, it was certainly a good read.
The story is centered around three main characters – James Bennett, an art critic; Raul Engales, an exiled Argentinian painter running from his past; and Lucy Olliason, a small-town beauty and Raul’s muse. There are other important characters – an influential gallery owner, James’s wife, a lost boy, and Raul’s sister but the story is predominantly told from three points-of-view.
The character of James is spectacular and fantastically odd. He has a condition known as synesthesia, which means the things he sees and feels, significantly art, are translated to colours and smells.
“…a brain in which a word was transformed into a color, where an image was manufactured into a bodily sensation, where applesauce tasted like sadness and winter was the colour blue…”
Although the synesthesia could have verged on gimmicky, Prentiss’s descriptions of people, art and events from James’s perspective are brilliantly engaging –
“The time of day was light orange, the air diesel and geranium, and she was red, always red, beside him.”
“He doubted anyone would see in his painting what he once did: the smell of doughnuts; the taste of rain; the color of his wife’s nylons.”
The character of Raul – gutsy, brash but with an ego of suitable fragility for an emerging artist – completely outshines Lucy, who he falls in love with after they meet in a bar. Unfortunately, Lucy is the weak-spot in this story. Her character is lack-lustre and so many of the things she does are driven by tenuous omens, turns of fate and coincidences – the result feels contrived and pushes the story well beyond plausible and into the dreaded melodramatic zone. But (and there’s always a but because I usually check-out if a story enters the melodramatic zone) Prentiss’s deft vignettes kept me in favour –
“High school was the beginning of his blue period. James was all acne, ears, and quadratic equations.”
And her wisdom, delivered with the lightest of touches, held true to each of her characters –
“Love, like luck, was for the lucky. Love was for the people who could afford to lose it, for those who had room in their lives for loss, whose quota of losses had not already been filled.”
“It isn’t enough to be beautiful,” says Marge [to Lucy]. “Beautiful is for other people. You have to be something for you.”
After so many handy coincidences, I was expecting a neat ending, with every last element of the story resolved. But Prentiss surprised me – a lengthy epilogue softens the convenient twists of fate and throws in some doubt, leaving me to ponder the future for James, Raul and Lucy.
3/5 Far from perfect but I’ll look forward to more from Prentiss.
I received my copy of Tuesday Nights in 1980 from the publisher, Penguin Books (UK), via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
“A girl who is being handed a drink involving gin, that tastes like poison and sunshine, at once.”