Review of The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson

I made a big mistake. I read reviews of The Exhibitionist on Goodreads just now. The fortunate thing is that I had already formed my own opinion, which is: this book is a hoot. So I’m not necessarily affected by the reviews I read, except to wonder how anyone who considers themselves to be a serious reviewer/book blogger/influencer(whatever) could give this book a one star rating. To me a one star book is horribly written, incoherent, full of errors, and hackneyed as the day is long, showing that the “writer” doesn’t understand how to write a book and doesn’t care to learn. Tsk. Tsk. Anyway, let me jump down from this soapbox and get on with this review. 😉

Blurb: Meet the Hanrahan family, gathering for a momentous weekend as famous artist and notorious egoist Ray Hanrahan prepares for a new exhibition of his art–the first in many decades–and one he is sure will burnish his reputation for good. His three children will be there: eldest daughter Leah, always her father’s biggest champion; son Patrick, who has finally decided to strike out on his own; and daughter Jess, the youngest, who has her own momentous decision to make. And what of Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife? She is an artist, too, but has always had to put her roles as wife and mother first. What will happen if she decides to change? For Lucia is hiding secrets of her own, and as the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must finally make a choice about which desires to follow.

The Exhibitionist is the latest, extraordinary novel from Charlotte Mendelson, a dazzling exploration of art, sacrifice, toxic family politics, queer desire, and personal freedom.

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The Hanrahan family is coming up to a big weekend. Once famous artist, Ray Hanrahan, is having an exhibition for the first time in years. It’s a big deal, except that most everyone knows that Ray’s time is over and that it’s his wife, Lucia, who is the important artist now. Probably far more important than Ray has ever been, which doesn’t go over well for the egoist who believes whole-heartedly that the world revolves around him. Ray does not possess a selfless bone. He expects Lucia to permanently take a backseat to him, which she has done for years. She’s raised three kids and taken care of Ray through his many moods including the ones where he degrades her and says that she would be a nobody if it weren’t for him. Fortunately Lucia has her own secret, one that makes her happy beyond her art. How long she’ll be able to keep that happiness is questionable because the secret has an expiration date.

The three children are Patrick, a wannabe chef who may have the opportunity of a lifetime present itself to him if he could gather the courage to take it; Daddy’s girl beautiful Leah who seems to exist in the same dream world as her blinder-ridden father; and lastly Jess who had the wisdom to escape Ray’s orbit, find a life in Scotland, unfortunately with a possible fiancé who is far more enthralled with her father than she is. As they all come together for this momentous weekend, will their lives ever be the same again in Charlotte Mendelson’s biting The Exhibitionist?

When I read the final page, my first thought was: well that was a fun ride. Perhaps the build up was slow but the payout was worth it.

Yes, Ray is an unlikeable character. He’s supposed to be. He’s the type of man who has achieved moderate success, which attains a disproportionate size in his own mind, and who lives on that for the rest of his life, disregarding the lives, desires, wishes, hopes of those nearest and dearest (okay, we’re not positively certain he could ever regard someone as “dearest”). He sneers at the suggestion that he is anything but English–certainly not the Irish that his last name might suggest, and yet he must have traditional Sunday breakfast cake, which is not an English thing (or so my English housemate informed me) but may be an Irish one as they do have breakfast cake. He has built up an entire life that seems to only exist in his mind. Especially when there’s no money to support it.

It would be easy to write off the other characters as stereotypical, except then the reader wouldn’t feel the compunction that one does as one reads about Patrick who needs a heavy dose of courage or Leah who we can both dislike for her obsessive father-devotion and yet feel pity for because she hasn’t been out living her life and imagines amorous encounters where there are none; or Jess who’s been told so many times that she’s not the beautiful one and should be grateful for any man taking her on that she is reluctant to let a loveless situation go. And, even Lucia who would seem to be the long-suffering wife but who experiences wave after wave of guilt for never standing up for Patrick and even when she realizes that she never does, she still doesn’t. Yes, these are dysfunctional characters in a dysfunctional family but they are not caricatures by any means.

I appreciated the ironies, the subtle humor, the snark, the poignancy of characters striving to live in the shadow of a man who considers himself to be the sun but instead is a very cold space rock. While I welcome novels that do not spoon-feed the reader, I did wish for more at the end. I really wanted to know how it was all going to turn out in a month’s time.

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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