New Yorker Story:
“La Vita Nuova”

Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova,” in the current issue of The New Yorker, is a palpably artful story, but not a very appealing one. At the beginning, an unnamed fiancé breaks up with Amanda, a girl from New York who has followed him to Cambridge. Her immediate response is to carry her wedding dress to the school where she teaches art, and to invite her first-graders to embellish it with paint and feathers. It is impossible not to imagine an operatic mad scene or two, involving deranged heroines and blood. Certainly the school’s principal is disturbed.

The principal told Amanda, that for an educator, bounderies were an issue. “Your personal life,” said the principal, “is not an appropriate art project for first grade. Your classroom,” said the principal, “is not an appropriate forum for your relationships. Let’s pack up the wedding dress.”

At the end of the school year, Amanda’s contract is not renewed. I couldn’t tell how the author wanted me to feel about this. But I knew that the fiancé had done a sane thing in walking away from Amanda.

The meat of the story describes the summer that Amanda spends with Nicholas, one of her first-graders and now her babysitting charge. Nicholas’s parents no longer live together, which makes it easier for Nicholas’s mother to express her dislike of Amanda, and for his father to express his desire to sleep with her. Amanda and Nicholas do neat things, like going to the zoo, and Amanda behaves very responsibly with the boy, but recurring references to things that the fiancé used to say suggest that Amanda is enjoying a protracted mad scene. She is as closed to us as any disturbed person. Instead of hearing her thoughts, we watch her paint several sets of nested Russian dolls.

As before, she coated each painted doll with clear gloss until the colors gleamed. As before, she made each doll a perfect jewel-like object, but she spent the most time on the biggest, oldest doll.

After that, she bought more blanks and painted more sets: people she knew, people she didn’t know. People she met. Portraits in series, five dolls each. She painted Patsy, blonder and blonder in each incarnation. She painted her fiancé as a boy, as an athlete, as a law student, as a paunchy bald guy, as a decrepit old man. She didn’t kill him, but she aged him.

She lined up the dolls and photographed them. She thought about fellowships. She imagined group shows, solo shows. Refusing interviews.

She took Nathaniel to swimming lessons. She went down to the harbor with him and they threw popcorn to seagulls that caught the kernels in midair.

The self-indulgence of Amanda’s obsessive painting is mirrored quite perfectly in the author’s self-indulgent stylishness. What else could possibly link the third and fourth paragraphs here?

At the end of the story, Amanda breaks up with Nicholas; she decides to go back to New York. Nicholas — an unusually likable child, especially for literary precincts of this temperature — is far more dramatically heartbroken by Amanda’s defection than Amanda was by the fiancé’s departure. His squirming pain is so real, in fact, that I wondered if it were not the very point of “La Vita Nuova” (I’m going to let the Dante angle, such as it is, slide): Amanda’s revenge.

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