One Woman Show by Christine Coulson
Published by Avid Reader Press
Publication date: October 17, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Historical, Literary
Caroline Margaret Brooks Whitaker Wallingford de Braganza Deen (aka Kitty), the epitome of 20th century American wealth, is depicted through art in the novel, One Woman Show. How does one represent a woman as art in a written format? Author Christine Coulson, whose imagination is as expansive as the art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she worked, makes it look simple in this literary delight.
Coulson takes Kitty, a Manhattanite born to privilege in 1906, and retells her life as a valuable piece of decorative porcelain art. If this feat isn’t astonishing enough she does it in the form of wall labels—those brief, descriptive squares mounted next to every item in a museum, that gives its title, history, key facts, and provenance. And Kitty is flush with all of these. Her first display is Masterpiece, Aged 5, 1911 with the succinct label “a delirious display of Bernini verve and unrivaled WASP artistry”.
From this illustrious beginning Kitty goes on to critically acclaimed appearances as Dreamer, Bride, Society Force, and Third-Time Wife. At which point the wear and tear begins to show, with cracks appearing in her delicate surface glaze. When her form and style fall out of fashion she recasts herself in desperate attempts to fend off the inevitable—being taken off the shelf and packed away, forgotten in her world.
Throughout One Woman Show Kitty is catalogued as neatly and succinctly as any museum piece except…within these pithy, factually accurate descriptions Coulson’s wickedly sharp and articulate prose leaves behind clues that expose the realities of Kitty’s life. At 21 she is renowned as Display Model
With astonishing facility, Kitty ignites the illusion of buzzing occupation, beguiling viewers while she blithely does absolutely nothing.
But while it is a one woman show, Kitty is highlighted by the various pieces of artistic bric-a-brac that surround her, from bridesmaids and parents to a housekeeper, husbands, and Picasso. Together they complete this 20th century showpiece of entitlement, but within the acidic wit and frivolity, there are lesser-known portraits of Kitty in shades of tragedy that create a degree of balance in the collection.
Aside from wanting it to be longer, I adored everything about this clever, wisp of a novel. Coulson’s creativity is notable, but even more so is the fact that she executed her vision so superbly. Like any great piece of art, she catches the eye with the superficial elements, only to draw it in and hold it with the finer strokes found in the smallest of details. Kitty’s life as bored, wealthy woman is easy to recognize as Coulson renders the cliché with style, but it’s the play of dark against light that elevates One Woman Show from knick-knack to masterpiece.
Want to bliss out on even more fiction about the Met? Coulson’s debut, Metropolitan Stories, is another of my favorites.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Avid Reader Press in exchange for an honest review.*