Married to an Art Monster

Married to an Art Monster

Credit…Kimberly Elliott THE EXHIBITIONIST, by Charlotte Mendelson “I prefer stories squalor,” J.D. Salinger's Esmé said. Esmé would have gone nuts for “The Exhibitionist,” the fifth by the English writer Charlotte Mendelson, which was longlisted for the Women's Prize for in 2022. Set in sophisticated if not exactly moneyed quarters of London, with excursions to Edinburgh, it's a model of tightly controlled domestic chaos. Google the word “exhibitionist” and you will surface some unsavory porn sites. Here it refers rather to a massively egotistic artist, Ray Hanrahan, who in the autumn of his years and the winter of 2010 is preparing to show his paintings for the first time in decades. There's a big party planned, with a “full Mediterrfusion tasting menu” and early foreboding that it will not go well. Ray is curiously named, for he is less the sun around which the other characters revolve than a dark star, domineering and undermining. His best-known work? A squiggly nude called “Screw” (1971), like Al Goldstein 's dirty magazine of that era. His list of dislikes, frantically tabulated by his elder daughter, Leah, in a hilarious parenthetical that fills half a page, includes “cathedral towns; shrubs; supermarkets; wallpaper; exercise.” (Mendelson excels at idiosyncratic listiness, as well as capturing the way people actually converse: cutting each other off in midsentence, sometimes midword.) Ray is the kind of bounder who is so traumatized by his wife's breast-cancer surgery that he cheats on her with his osteopath — and then spins it as abuse. (“She was my clinician. I'm the victim here.”) The true center of “The Exhibitionist” is this wife, Lucia, Ray's former student and a sculptor who put her ambitions on hold to raise three children, one by a different father, and essentially be Jo Hopper to his Edward . She is 54, occupying “the tiny interval between youthful self-loathing and the sorrow of age,” and embarking on her own affair, with Priya, a beautiful married member of Parliament who evokes paroxysms of desire not felt since secondary school. Lucia is concealing another, perhaps even more ruinous secret […]

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