Self Portrait with Boy


It’s been ages since I did a Book Club post, and while I’ve been reading regularly, there hasn’t been a book that has moved me until recently. Self Portrait with Boy is the debut novel by Rachel Lyon, and it isn’t a masterpiece by any means. The writing is good, maybe a bit disjointed, but it was the moral dilemma presented in the book that has been on my mind.

The story centers on Lu Rile, a struggling (in every sense of the word) artist in New York City, set sometime in the early 1990’s. She lives in an illegal loft populated by other artists and works three minimum wage jobs to support herself, and help her ailing father with his upcoming cataract surgery. Her medium is photography, and she is working on a daily self-portrait project on the day the novel opens.

She is at day #400, and as she is sitting in her loft, she notices the light coming in through the windows and the seagulls swirling outside. She sets up her tripod, undresses and practices jumping through the air aiming to time the shutter release at the precise moment she arcs in her jump. Finally, she is successful, and moments later hears a commotion in the stairwell as neighbors who were having a party on the top floor and their guests rush downstairs. She is oblivious and takes the stairs up to the roof, where she discovers that the young son of her neighbors had fallen to his death minutes earlier.

When she develops the slide, it is everything she thought it would be – beautifully composed, perfectly centered and balanced, but there is an image that she can’t identify in a corner that propels her to develop a print. That image is the boy falling, and it elevates the entire image to a masterpiece of composition; her jumping through the air at the perfect arc and the boy falling in juxtaposition to that jump. Both jumps, in opposite directions (for the record, it is never clear if the boy actually jumps or has tripped & fallen) are stunningly beautiful and equally haunting.

I’m not spoiling anything here, the gist of the novel is shared in many places, including the book jacket. What follows in the telling, which I won’t go into, is the moral dilemma she faces as she has to decide how to show this piece of work and the friendship that develops in the aftermath of the accident with the boys’ mother, and how that will be affected by her photograph. What escalates the dilemma is her internal struggle coupled with the extreme financial hardship she is dealing with, and that is what has stayed with me since the last page. The novel does have a tendency to drone on at times, and it certainly wasn’t a book that I couldn’t put down, but it did keep me engaged and provided an escape when I needed a little downtime – and that’s what I look for in novels. That, and a pretty cover ;)