Wisconsin author Jane Hamilton’s novel A Map of the World (1994) made a huge splash in the literary world when it was published. This story of a school nurse falsely accused of child molestation was painfully compelling to read. Both this work and her earlier success The Book of Ruth (1988) won a number of awards, became selections for Oprah’s Book Club and were adapted for films.
But with her latest novel Laura Rider’s Masterpiece (2009), Hamilton moved into different waters. Rather than dealing with the dark side of human nature, she chose to display her comic wit by taking satiric potshots at writers of romantic novels, public radio hosts, writing conferences and class pretensions.
Laura Rider has been successful both running a nursery and managing a husband who, despite his less-than-macho appearance, has left her with exhaustion in the bedroom.
To find fulfillment in life, Laura decides to become a romance novelist, approaching the writing challenge as systematically as she did the nursery business; she has no aptitude for either field.
Public Radio host Jenna Faroli is Laura’s role model in life, and becomes her template for a heroine in Laura’s fantasy of writing fiction. Like a puppet mistress using email rather than strings, Laura manipulates a romance between her husband and Jenna as a sort of laboratory experiment to gain material for her novel. She has no problems with sexual jealousy as her husband’s ardor has extinguished hers, sending her to a single bed.
While this reader, like other critics, preferred Hamilton’s earlier books, nonetheless this one sparkles with her wit and graceful language. And her satire is not drawn with broad strokes, but is nuanced and ambivalent. Authors sometimes need to take risks, to reinvent themselves, and that is what Hamilton has done.
The novel is especially interesting to Wisconsin readers because of the Milwaukee area setting. Jenna and her husband had lived in the Milwaukee suburb of Fox “Grove” before moving to the small town of Hartley that brought her into proximity with Laura and her husband, and she works for the Milwaukee Public Radio station.
While Laura Rider’s Masterpiece might fall short of being one, it certainly inspires readers to go back and enjoy Hamilton’s earlier novels.
Laura Rider’s Masterpiece, by Jane Hamilton (214 pages) trade paperback, Grand Central Publishing, 2010