When the book begins, there is a salacious sex scene which almost stopped me from continuing, but then I thought, this is about Georgia O’Keeffe, and I forged on. Also, because there were such excellent reviews of the book, I didn’t want to give up. Soon I learned that Georgia’s parents were dead and she was living with her youngest sister who was preparing to go off to college when she met Alfred Stieglitz who was smitten by her and her work. Then, for me, the book proceeded to go downhill as it got mired in scenes of passionate sex which added nothing to the narrative and offered only a distraction, perhaps to make up for the thinness of the information about her art.
Most readers would have understood that Georgia and Stieglitz fell in love without the explicit descriptions of their lovemaking. Most would probably assume that with a 25 year age difference, there had to be something like love drawing them together, especially since Georgia was aware that he was married at the time she began to pursue him, or that is how the author made it seem. The disparity in their ages became far more apparent when he was near 80, and she was in her 50’s, than when she kissed him at age 20 and he was 45. According to the author, she made the first approach to Stieglitz by surprising him with a passionate kiss when he saw her off at the train station after she visited him to discuss her art work. Georgia knew Stieglitz was famous; she knew he was married, so I had little sympathy for her later protestations when he was disloyal to her. She was guilty of breaking up his marriage, regardless of whether it was a happy one or not. Perhaps she saw an advantage to herself from a relationship with him, although later in life, she wondered if that relationship changed her career arc and the type of art she presented to the world.
Stieglitz is portrayed as a man with the typical excuse for a woman when he wants to cheat. He tells “the other woman” his marriage had ended years ago. However, at the time, they were still married. The author made it sound more like lust made their match and not so much true love. Also, one had to wonder if Georgia, a bright and fairly independent woman, even at that young age, was not aware of the influence he might have on her future success as an artist. Later on, it became obvious that Stieglitz was totally devoted to Georgia, but he was authoritarian, almost like a parent at times, and he had wayward ways and was unable to control his “small brain”. Why would a woman think that a man who would cheat with her would not cheat with others?
Also from the author’s depiction, Georgia seems selfish and driven by ego in later life. She seems a bit ungrateful for Stieglitz’s support and the author questions whether or not his relationship was good for her, in the end. Did he really make her famous or would she have become famous on her own? That is an unanswerable question. Georgia seems selfish and self-absorbed as time passes. Perhaps Stieglitz was too controlling, but somehow it felt that as she got more and more successful and needed him less, she also grew apart from him. Of course, his infidelity may have also played a part in that, but she was also someone with a roving eye.
In summary, I didn’t find much useful information in the book other than the fact that Stieglitz liked Georgia’s work and then they fell passionately or lustily in love. He directed her career. They had an affair that broke up his marriage. He wanted to marry her, but she resisted for years. Finally, when he was 62 and she was 37, they married. She traveled and tried different painting styles, many of which he rejected and she insisted upon. When she discovered Stieglitz was unfaithful, she began to distance herself from him more and more, although they still lived together, after a fashion. He controlled her career until she felt she no longer needed him, at which point, she asserted herself more strongly. After her nervous breakdown and eventual recovery, she grew even more apart from Stieglitz and they no longer lived together, but he continued to have great influence over her career. With his sudden death at the age of 82 (not so sudden at that age), she had some guilty feelings about having neglected him, refusing his last request for her to stay with him for just a little while. Did he know he was so sick? Suddenly, the tables turned, and she was now in charge of his work, not he in charge of hers. She continued to paint, but then, sadly, began to lose her sight until she was almost totally blind.
Perhaps the book would have appealed to me more if I had read the print version. The author’s overly lyrical and dramatic prose and the overly emotive narrator’s presentation in the audio version made it a chore, not a pleasure to listen. I was disappointed because my opinion of the artist changed. Previously, I had admired her for her work without a thought about her personal life. Now, I had negative feelings about a famous artist who had morphed into what seemed like a self-serving, narcissist with a short fuse who used those who could advance her career to her advantage.
Stieglitz, perhaps morally reprehensible, seemed more devoted to her than she was to him. Her morality was not even questionable since it seemed non-existent for that time period, and I had to wonder why she thought it was okay for her to cheat with another woman’s husband, but believed that it was not okay, or expected, for that already cheating husband to do it again.
In short, the reader over emotes, the author over dramatizes. For me, the only redeeming feature of the book was the information about O’Keeffe’s artwork and Stieglitz’s photography, although it seemed there was far too little emphasis on that and far too much on their sex lives. The book seemed more about Georgia’s sexual desires than her painting. At times, the book felt almost like a Harlequin novel with a half-dressed woman and man pictured on the cover.