Identity Unknown: Six Novels about Women Artists

identity-unknown-donna-seamanThe current issue of Booklist, which spotlights the arts, contains an interview with Donna Seaman, our Adult Books Editor and the author of Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists, forthcoming from Bloomsbury. The book presents the lives and achievements of artists who, in spite of their considerable accomplishments, have been marginalized because of their gender.

Although many women artists have been cast aside by history, contemporary novels are full of them. Here are six of my favorites, linked to their Booklist reviews.

 The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner

An enigmatic and gorgeous young woman artist named Reno arrives in New York in the 70s, just in time to become entangled with the decades’ major battles on both the art- and labor-fronts. Every euphoric review you’ve read about The Flamethrowers is completely accurate.

generation-loss-elizabeth-hand Generation Loss, by Elizabeth Hand

Cassandra “Scary” Neary was a heroin-addled, avant-garde photographer in the New York punk rock scene of the 70s, and her life has only gone downhill from there. An editor gives her a chance—and the promise of some much-needed cash—when she tasks her with interviewing the mysterious and very famous photographer Aphrodite Komistos on her private island off the coast of Maine. Ultra-creepy hijinks ensue.

The Great Man, by Kate Christensen

When a famous artists dies, his competing biographers uncover the hidden women who made him successful. This is a very funny book, and one of the few I can remember that contains frank depictions of sex among senior citizens.

A Seahorse Year, by Stacy D’Erasmo

Although this novel’s protagonist is a schizophrenic 16-year-old boy, it proves D’Erasmo’s status as an amazingly capable artist in her own right. If you like reading euphoric passages about art, gender identity, and love, then this is the book for you.

woman-upstairs-claire-messud The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

Donna Seaman’s review of this book is just perfect: “In this acid bath of a novel, the superlative Messud immolates an iconic figure—the good, quiet, self-sacrificing woman—with exhilarating velocity, fury, and wit while taking on the vicissitudes of family life and the paradoxes of art.”

 What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt

This book works as an intellectual novel that gives women’s role in art their due, as well as a hysterical interpretation of real-life events and public figures like Paul Auster, Lydia Davis, and Michael “Party Monster” Alig.

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About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist. She worked in bookstores for twelve years, reviews books for The Boston Globe, and writes about books, culture, and politics for several other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Genie.

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