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Four years ago, Nina's four-year-old brother drowned accidentally in the back yard. Nina had been looking after him, while their artist mother was on the phone inside. Now, at the age of fifteen, Nina still feels guilty, although she knows it wasn't her fault. For a long time after the death, Nina's mother stayed in bed day after day, and Nina felt responsible for making her mother feel better. She coaxes her mother out of bed by agreeing to pose for a picture. Her mother is initially unenthusiastic, but she then hits on the idea of painting a series of works showing Nina through her adolescent development. All are nudes. Nina may have had some reservations about agreeing to this, but she didn't want her mother to relapse back into her depression, so she said nothing.
Now the series of paintings is nearly finished, and they are getting ready to show the works at a local gallery. Nina feels especially self-conscious now, with the prospect of so many people seeing these highly realistic portraits of her naked. Her mother is utterly oblivious to any possible concerns, even when Nina's father expresses his own reservations. Her father has been drinking too much for some time now, and it is clear that the marriage is in a bad way. Nina can't really talk to either of her parents.
Nina does make a new friend at her ballet class, Raisa. Raisa is much more awkward than Nina in her movements, but she is more outgoing and unafraid in her behavior. Nina is able to tell her friend some of her secrets, and when Raisa tells her that she once kissed another girl, Nina starts thinking about her friend in more sensual ways.
At the opening of her mother's show at the gallery, Nina also meets a writer for an art magazine, and he shows a great interest in her. She is thrilled to get the attention from a man, and she starts meeting him on dates. It isn't long before she is visiting his apartment secretly so he can take photographs of her and then they have sex.
At this point, the novel has a choice: Nina can either thrive in her newly adult behavior, or else she can regret her bad choices. It's no great surprise when more revelations about her family lead Nina to take the latter course, spiraling downward into crisis.
Judging from reader's comments at Amazon and the quoted reviews on the author website, some people find this novel admirable. It is unusual in its themes, and explores adolescent sensuality and sexuality with a pleasant openness without ever being crude or pornographic. Yet the themes of posing for nude portraits, ballet, teenage lesbianism, and getting involved with an older man make the novel sound like a written version of a David Hamilton movie, while the earlier death and the family dysfunction is reminiscent of any number of other French films featuring troubled teen girls. There's too much cliché here, and the problems resulting from the death of Nina's brother seem trivialized. While the themes of the book are adult, the style of writing is more appropriate to a "young adult" novel or even a romance novel. So while there are some strengths to this work, it doesn't fit together as a whole.
The reading of the unabridged audiobook by Mia Barron is faithful to the tone of the words. She is good at making Nina sound young compared to the adults, and she keeps the characters well separated.
© 2007 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.