________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 29 . . . . April 7, 2017


The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex.

Gabrielle Williams.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2017.
250 pp., trade pbk. & epub, $21.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-55498-941-6 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55498-942-3 (epub).

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Wendy Phillips.

**** /4



Could they get away with it? What about security? When would be the best time to take the painting? What would their ransom demands be? What if they got caught?

The idea appealed to Luke's sense of anarchy. He liked the thought of protesting against niggardly government funding. It would be a noble gesture. A little something he could do in support of struggling artists—people like Dipper and their other mates who made zero money out of their art. It was a bloody good idea. The perfect plan. And it went off without a hitch.

Until now.

When Picasso's painting, Weeping Woman, disappears from a Melbourne, Australia gallery, it seems like a harmless joke and a political statement about art. But the consequences cascade into a near tragedy that transforms the lives of a whole community.

      The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and his Ex is a fictional spin on a true 1986 incident. A group calling itself the Australian Cultural Terrorists stole Picasso's iconic Weeping Woman from the Melbourne Gallery and held it for ransom, demanding an increase in government funding for artists. Subject to an international police search, the painting was eventually discovered in a locker at a train station, but the thieves were never found.

      Author Gabrielle Williams fleshes out the bones of the unsolved mystery story through the lives of four young people. "Guy" is an underachieving student who throws a massive party while his parents are away for a weekend. The "girl" is Rafi, 16, a new Australian immigrant from Colombia and daughter of Estelle, a woman on the edge of madness after the drowning death of Rafi's young brother. Luke is a successful but deeply selfish young artist, far more concerned about getting caught than in protecting the life of his infant son. Penny is Luke's ex, her life plans short circuited by pregnancy and then hijacked by single parenthood. Through the story drifts the tormented, threatening spirit of La Llorona, a bereaved mother of Spanish legend who seeks babies to drown. The trajectory, if not the details, of the plot is set in motion by character.

      The action is a blend of truth and fiction. At the urging of the shady art dealer Real, Luke steals the painting with the help of his friend, a security guard, creating a forged copy he plans to return when the ransom is paid. Real turns out to be the uncle of Rafi, and he has less altruistic plans than funding the arts. Rafi babysits for Penny, Luke's ex girlfriend who lives next door. One night, Rafi gets her disturbed mother to watch baby Josh so she can go to Guy's blow out party. On Penny's mantelpiece is the Weeping Woman, La Llorona in Spanish. It's a copy, Luke tells Penny, but when Estelle sees the image, it's also a trigger for a tragic series of interconnected events.

      Told in shifting points of view that bounce back and forth among the four main characters, the storyline at first seems disjointed. Gradually – and satisfyingly – the strands converge as the public drama of the search is interwoven with individual and family drama. Williams does a creditable job of keeping the characters' points of view limited and their voices distinct, contributing to the overall tapestry of truth that eventually emerges.

      The female characters are dynamic and fully developed, especially Penny who wrestles with a helpless love for the inconsiderate Luke. Their relationship echoes that of Picasso and one of his many lovers, Dora Maar, whom Picasso destroyed and who was the inspiration for the painting. Penny, in contrast, pulls herself together to see the truth of Luke's infidelity and unkindness. "It was funny," she muses, "how you, yourself, could pretend something to you, yourself, that you, yourself, knew to be untrue." We watch with satisfaction her growth to emotional independence.

      Rafi reflects a hidden subculture of adolescence—those who are more parents than children, those whose parents' mental instability robs them of a true childhood. Rafi's abnormal maturity gives way at a crucial moment. Her lapse of judgment, her first risk, has deep repercussions that shake both her and her extended family.

      Luke is believable as a talented artist absorbed by his own desires, contemptuous of his public and careless of the needs of others. The fact he does not change is true to character; the rejection by his friend and his ex is karmic justice for the reader but has little impact on Luke's ego.

      Guy's fecklessness in forging marks and lying to his parents, then giving in to his friends' pressure is redeemed by his heroic action in a crisis and his blooming crush on Rafi. His is a situation familiar to many teens – a lie that grows far beyond its first telling and spins out of control.

      The story includes many Australianisms that may confuse young Canadian readers, but the story is a universal one, exploring relationships, the purpose and role of art in everyday life, as well as the consequences of taking risks and accepting responsibility. Despite the confusing beginning, the story quickly gains momentum, with a combination of suspense, romance and mystery that appeals to readers of multiple genres. The factual background of the central action – the theft – is an intriguing true life mystery as well.

      Most of the characters are young adults rather than teens, but many older teens will relate to the dilemmas and circumstances in the novel. The title is a mouthful, but the book, itself, is a compelling and entertaining read.

Highly Recommended.

Wendy Phillips is a teacher librarian in Richmond, BC. and the author of the Governor General's Literary Award winning young adult novel, Fishtailing.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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