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Self-Portrait with Boy


Self-Portrait with Boy

Before Brooklyn was hip, before Red Hook was the home of famous brownies and DUMBO was, well, DUMBO, those neighborhoods, along with many others that have become highly sought-after locales, were a collection of dilapidated warehouses. In the early ’90s, those warehouses, with million-dollar views of Manhattan and a century’s worth of grime on the floors, often became artist collectives; buildings not zoned for occupancy where a group of artists reside --- squat --- anyway. The spaces immense, the rent cheap, the living conditions precarious. It is one of these warehouses in DUMBO on which Rachel Lyon’s debut novel, SELF-PORTRAIT WITH BOY, is centered.

Lu Rile is a 26-year-old aspiring photographer trying to break into the art world while living in an old cardboard factory across the East River from Manhattan. She works full-time at Summerland, a health food store, in Brooklyn Heights and continually resents the wealthy Heights customers that frequent the store. Her job pays her enough for necessities, though she employs a five-finger discount at work, as she takes photos and hopes that one of them will help her gain traction in the cutthroat art world.

"The writing is beautiful and unafraid. Lyon captures Brooklyn in the ’90s wonderfully as she builds the battle between squatters, the landlords to whom they pay rent, and the developers on the verge of a real estate revolution."

She is on day 400 of her “self-portrait a day” photo project when a tragedy strikes her building: Max Schubert-Fine, the son of a painter and his wife who live above Lu, has fallen off the roof of the building and died. Lu’s neighbors join Kate and Steve, Max’s parents, in deep mourning, and in the days and weeks that follow, Lu begins to form an intense and intricate friendship with Kate as Kate makes her solemn way through grief.

What Lu doesn’t tell Kate is that at the exact moment Max fell, at the exact moment he passed her fourth floor window, Lu took her daily self-portrait. The photo, she determines, is brilliant, a “masterpiece,” with her naked and leaping in the air to the right and the falling boy to the left. It’s the best picture she’s ever taken; it’s her ticket to notoriety and a steady income. But she can’t bring herself to tell Kate about the photo, so she keeps it to herself. That is, until she begins to receive visits from the ghost of Max. There seems to be some connection between Max and the picture, the last ever taken of him. Lu thinks she’s going crazy, but as time marches on and Max begins to become more solid, she knows she has to do something, something to get the picture viewed, to get it out of her apartment in the hope that the apparition of the child will leave her in peace.

SELF-PORTRAIT WITH BOY was something of a challenge for me. Despite her poverty and constant struggle, I felt little empathy for Lu and found that I cared only minutely about her fate. She is a ruthless and narcissistic young woman, and, while ambition is necessary to make something of yourself, I found her disregard for other people extremely off-putting. Her treatment of her father during a Christmas visit when she is supposed to be caring for him after disastrous cataracts surgery irreversibly colored her character. The paranormal slant also felt somewhat out of place with the other, heavy themes surrounding it.

The writing is beautiful and unafraid. Lyon captures Brooklyn in the ’90s wonderfully as she builds the battle between squatters, the landlords to whom they pay rent, and the developers on the verge of a real estate revolution. Her characterization of artists and the art world feels true --- to this novice anyway --- and she weaves the unsettledness of New York and the stringency of wealth with ease. It should be noted that Lyon makes the stylistic choice not to use quotation marks around dialogue. If you are like me and can’t bear this, I recommend the audiobook, which is read by the always reliable Julia Whelan.

Reviewed by Sarah Jackman on February 16, 2018

Self-Portrait with Boy
by Rachel Lyon

  • Publication Date: March 12, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1501169599
  • ISBN-13: 9781501169595