Reviewed by Sue Bond
The Only True Genius in the Family
by Jennie Nash
Paperback: 304 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0425225752, February 2009
Claire Brown is a photographer of food, particularly desserts. Her father, Paul Switzer, was a photographer too, but of landscapes, a famous artist rather than a commercial practitioner. At the beginning of Jennie Nash’s absorbing novel, he has just died, and Claire has to abandon a photo shoot involving millions of dollars’ worth of jewellery and expensive chocolates. She is clearly angry at his timing: ‘I would have killed my dad if he hadn’t already done it himself’.
And so the author sets the tone of the novel, and we know that Claire and her father had a distant and irascible relationship. The journey that Claire takes in this story reveals a secret of sorts, a discovery that changes her view of herself, as well as of her father. She enters a crisis of confidence in her own ability, at one point throwing her camera into the ocean.
Bailey, Claire and her husband Harrison’s daughter, is viewed as the ‘inheritor’ of her grandfather’s genius. From childhood Bailey has been obsessed with colour, drawing and painting constantly. Now she is finishing a set of paintings for her MFA at the Art Center in Pasadena, and success is within her grasp. Claire commits an act that is hard for her daughter to forgive, and shows her fragility, jealousy and anger.
There are many interesting and important conversations occurring in this novel. Claire is wrestling with her bitterness towards her father’s behaviour, a man who left his family when Claire was ten, and set off to pursue his calling. She works through this history, like a puzzle or a problem for her to solve. And the questions about art and the artist, the nature of genius, inspiration, calling, are inherent to this story.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, argues that natural genius is a myth, and that other factors, including hard work, are what distinguish the top performers at something, given equal ability. Nash addresses this myth, and makes it a vital part of her central protagonist’s journey.
As Jennie Nash has a blog on creativity and is a writing coach, it is not surprising that she is interested in this topic, and has written this novel. It is her second, the first being The Last Beach Bungalow, but she has also written non-fiction.
The author writes well, sometimes producing transcendent passages, such as when Claire describes her daughter painting, or her father’s photographs. There are, puzzlingly, some clanky sections, such as when Claire tells Bailey her granddaughter is dead. I also wondered why Nash would have Harrison saying to his wife that there is nothing worse than losing a parent; this did not ring true for me.
I also felt that it did need a few more scenes of Bailey with her grandfather, to show more of what sort of person he was; I was not convinced by being told by minor characters that he was a good man, or that he did his best as a father.
But what is particularly satisfying and impressive about the novel is Nash’s ability to take Claire through a difficult and illuminating life passage. It is psychologically satisfying, as well as making for a good narrative with rich characters.
About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane with her partner and their large cat. She writes reviews for the Courier Mail, Metapsychology Online, Journal of Australian Studies Review of Books, dotlit, Asian Review of Books and Social Alternatives. Some of her short stories have been published in Hecate, Imago, Mangrove and SmokeLong Quarterly, and she has degrees in medicine, literature and creative writing. She is working on a memoir of her adoptive life, as well as short stories and essays. Her blog is at http://geckowriting.blogspot.com