Painted Ladies, by Nova Scotia short story writer H.R. Percy, is a first novel that tries hard to do too many things at once. It attempts to be broadly funny and deeply moving at the same time; it labors to present an array of verbal pyrotechnics; and it proffers a large cast of eccentric minor characters. Not surprisingly, it does not succeed in accomplishing all those ambitions equally well. Still, the novel strikes gold often enough to encourage cautious optimism about the literary future of H.R. Percy.
The hero of Painted Ladies is Emile Logan, a tempestuous painter who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gulley Jimson, the protagonist of Joyce Cary’s 1944 classic comic novel, The Horse's Mouth. Like Jimson, Logan is a spirited iconoclast who puts everything and everybody second to his
burning need to paint. Eventually, his single-minded genius propels him from a life of obscurity and poverty to a position as one of Canada’s leading realists. But riches and critical acclaim come to mean little to Logan: when the novel opens, in 1976, he is on his deathbed, the victim of a wasting but unspecified illness. Most of Painted Ladies is a reminiscence as Logan and his longtime model and lover, Eleanor, review their tragicomic destinies.
Not surprisingly, the elderly lovers consider their first years together to be their best. The humor of their loosely linked adventures is sometimes witty, but unfortunately Percy’s melodramatic sensibility undermines its effectiveness. Painted Ladies takes all too seriously the romantic cliché of the turbulent, passionate artist’s life. When Logan and Eleanor make love, Percy writes, “But if her touch inflamed him, the savagery of his hands sent her wild, and they soared time after time into a wildfire madness ....”
If such plunges into the purple zone do not trouble the reader, then Percy’s uncertain handling of his secondary characters probably will. The author draws Logan and Eleanor with reasonable vividness, but many of the supporting cast, such as the couple’s pathetically devoted maid, Emily, and
Maudie, the childlike widow of Logan’s wartime friend, Jacques, flit like ghosts through the rococo architecture of Percy’s elaborate prose style. The minor characters seem less like real people than excuses for the narrator to indulge in more long-winded observations and fragmentary reminiscences.
While those shortcomings sabotage the picaresque inventiveness of the first two-thirds of Painted Ladies, the reader can almost forget them in the accomplishment of the closing chapters. There, Percy abandons his apparent attempts to rewrite The Horse's Mouth and involves Logan and Eleanor in a love triangle with a sensitive, handsome British art patron, the Earl of Dartford. “Darty” falls in love with Eleanor when he sees one of Logan’s portraits. Percy masterfully portrays Eleanor’s gradual, half-conscious consent to the seduction and Logan’s nightmarish passivity as he watches his beloved slip away. What started as a harmless flirtation moves toward tragedy, and in the process Painted Ladies attains a much-needed clarity of focus and momentum. The novel ends in an explosion of surrealistic images in the great painter’s mind as he dies. But the book leaves the reader not so much with a sense of genius passing to its reward as of a promising talent struggling to be born.
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