The Prize: A Novel
Life runs ahead of us, it runs away from us, it never stops until, one day, it does. How do we live the happiness we tentatively achieve? Is happiness sustainable? Is it always finally betrayed?
In her new novel, The Prize, Jill Bialosky ushers us inside the complicated lives of artists and those who strive both to represent them and to capitalize on their talents. Bialosky’s protagonist is Edward Darby, a partner in an esteemed gallery. He has staked both his reputation and his fiscal security on the work of the painter Agnes Murray, a red-headed beauty with a prickly temperament, an obsession with the ghosts of 911, and a competitive, high-profile husband.
As the story begins it’s clear that Darby is at a turning point—that the equilibrium he has achieved at the firm and with his wife and daughter has begun to falter. The incestuous needs and egos of the art world are partly to blame. A schedule that has Darby running off to Berlin and elsewhere. A wife that seems a tad too comfortable with a male childhood friend. A secret Darby has been keeping.
And then there are the temptations of a sculptor, Julia, who makes room for Darby’s natural darkness and anxiety.
Opportunities to break every imaginable trust, and tryst, abound. And trusts and trysts, indeed, are broken. You read fast because you have to know: Who, in all of this, will be left standing?
Bialosky, who is herself a poet, novelist, and editor (at W. W. Norton), has an expert eye for the ugliness that attends the beauty artists seek to create. She writes of the greed that gets in the way of creativity, of the race to win a game where there never really is a final winner, of the responsibilities of gallery dealers and managers, and of the infinitude of strokes too many high-stakes artists need. Her artists try to talk about their ideas, though often, as is the case even when writers talk about ideas, their words are secondary or stiff. It’s the made thing that matters most. Not the explanation.
Explaining and branding is primarily what Darby understands his job to be. He’s there to exult in Agnes’s work, to feed her ego, and to make the world believe in her ever-rising value.
He’s there to explain so that he can protect her.
She doesn’t want to hear his truth.
As The Prize unfolds, as Agnes (struggling with her work, struggling in her marriage, struggling with her needs) demands ever more, Darby must choose. Should he cede to Agnes’s ego and assure her that she’s produced grand new work? Or should Darby—who is busy breaking all kinds of other rules—insist on honesty?
It’s the kind of intrigue you will read late into the night.