The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson: ‘Hearts are elastic, but only up to a point’ 

Cover image for The Exhibitionist by Charlotte MendelsonRegular readers won’t be surprised to hear that it was the art theme that first drew me to Charlotte Mendelson’s The Exhibitionist but it’s a background note to the overriding one of dysfunctional families, another favourite, and they don’t come much more dysfunctional than the Hanrahans. Mendelson’s novel follows the family over a weekend when all are gathered to celebrate Ray’s first show for quite some time, each of them preparing themselves for the onslaught of his colossal ego and its demands.

How her heart aches for him, his brutal fragility, his frail boyish ego; has ached 

Ray and Lucia have been together for decades. They have three children: two daughters, and a son from Lucia’s first marriage. Lucia is younger than Ray who made his reputation with a single work off which he’s lived ever since, claiming that Lucia’s held him back by continuing with her own career. Truth be told, it’s Lucia who’s kept the family afloat, deferring to Ray’s outrageously inflated ego at a cost to all her children: Patrick is beset by constant anxiety, Leah has devoted herself to her father, barely leaving the house and Jess has run away to Edinburgh where she’s met Martyn and is in danger of repeating her parents’ relationship. As preparations begin, several characters are hugging secrets to themselves: Lucia is in love and evading the call from her agent that most artists would be thrilled to take; Patrick has the possibility of a future doing what he loves; Jess is facing a dilemma and Leah is harbouring a crush that’s largely in her own head. By the end of the weekend, conclusions will have been drawn that will irrevocably change the balance of power in the Hanrahan household.

Priya made herself. She is fearlessness and determination and grit and what, thinks Lucia, are all of you?

Mendelson’s novel opens with Ray’s habitual declaration that ‘Tolstoy was an idiot’ setting the tone for this family whose unhappiness is palpable on every page despite its patriarch’s obliviousness. Her narrative flits in and out of her characters’ heads, all of whom have suffered the miseries of coping with Ray’s vanity, none more so than Lucia who Ray insists has deliberately eclipsed his achievements in pursuit of her own career when she’s spent their life together tiptoeing around his gargantuan ego. The fallout of coercion and control is a dark theme, but Mendelson handles it with a light touch – Ray is an infuriating character but comic in his monstrousness, close to caricature at times but sufficiently well drawn to be believable. Lucia’s plight is heartrending, not least in the passages that deal with her cancer. Thoroughly deserving of its Women’s Prize for Fiction longlisting, it’s an entertaining novel which deals with serious issues and it ends on a note of hope that made me want to cheer.

Mantle: London 9781529052749 336 pages Hardback

27 thoughts on “The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson: ‘Hearts are elastic, but only up to a point’ ”

  1. Like you, I’m drawn to novels about art and dysfunctional families, so The Exhibitionist is a twofer! It’s been very high on my TBR since I read the Guardian’s review a few days ago; your review ensures that it will keep its place there. This is particularly so, as I’ve been meaning to get to Mendelson for ages (Daughters of Jerusalem has been sitting on the shelf for literally a decade) . . . perhaps this novel will be the trigger!

    1. Highly recommended for fans of both those themes which are irresistible aren’t they. This one was seven years in the writing, apparently, so at least there ‘s only one to catch up on!

  2. As I was reading your review I was thinking Ray sounded totally unbearable and I wasn’t sure I could read a novel with this character in it. But your final paragraph has convinced me I could manage him!

  3. I already wanted to read this and then you finished with a note of hope that made you want to cheer and that nailed it, thanks!

  4. It sounds very good, especially given your closing comments. Definitely one to keep in mind for some of my book subscription customers, once it’s available in paperback.

  5. I only heard about this one because of it’s inclusion in the longlist, but you are now the third person (whose opinion I trust) this week to say that it is really good so one to look out for I think.

  6. Not read this author before, but this does sound good. I like dysfunctional families in literature too, I also often enjoy an unlikeable character and Ray sounds very unlikeable.

  7. I saved your review for when I’d read and reviewed it, which is now! I agree that Ray was just the right amount of comical (that list of things he couldn’t tolerate) but also believable, and I compared him to an Iris Murdoch enchanter figure, somewhat also created by his victims (without victim-blaming, of course: he’s very clever and adept at manipulating by making other people feel bad). I’ve read all of hers except her first novel and her gardening book, and she just goes from strength to strength, I think. My review:

    1. I thought Ray was a brilliant character. Always best to poke fun at the monstrous. He’d have been unbearable without it, too. Thanks for the link. I’ll mosey along shortly

  8. Pingback: Women’s Prize Longlist Reviews (Erdrich, Mendelson, Ozeki) & Predictions | Bookish Beck

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