Shelf Awareness for Readers Review: The Rest of Us, by Jessica Lott

Here* is my Shelf Awareness for Readers review for Jessica Lott’s debut novel The Rest of Us Simon & Schuster, $24.99, hardcover, 9781451645873.  The advance reader’s copy came with blurbs from Elissa Schappell, Ha Jin and Adam Langer.  Many years in the business watching blurbs come in made me no less impressed by this line-up.  And indeed, I very much enjoyed this novel overall, with just a few minor quibbles.

The reviews so far have also been very good.  The Boston Globe commented, “[I]n the hands of a lesser writer, Jessica Lott’s literary debut could have become clichéd chick lit. But Lott focuses less on the beginnings of the relationship than on its aftermath, years later, and “The Rest of Us” proves to be a compelling, resonant, richly nuanced, and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of cross-generational love and the meaning of art.”  Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air says “Lott nails that sense of being stalled, of being an adjunct in life when everybody else seems to be a fully inducted player….Lott executes some unexpected riffs on the student-professor relationship plot.” The Chicago Tribune says that”from the start it’s evident that Lott has a mordantly acute comic sensibility” and notes that the novel feels so alive it feels autobiographical.

It is interesting to me that something both the latter two reviews saw as comic struck me as mannered (the quotation marks around the commentary of famous artists and writers).  I completely got the irony and critique of the self-importance of cultural celebrities but still saw it as more self-conscious than comedic.  It is always useful to look at something from another point of view.

*My review:

     Jessica Lott’s The Rest of Us is the story of Terry, a photographer in New York whose life is jolted by seeing the obituary for Rhinehart, one of her college professors, a Pulitzer-winning poet with whom she had fallen in love. Then, just as suddenly, she runs into Rhinehart–still, in fact, very much alive–and the chance reunion after 15 years leads to a renewal of their relationship.
     Rhinehart struggles with his history and protracted writer’s block while Terry begins to realize her long-dormant artistic aspirations, guided by Rhinehart’s estranged wife, Laura, an art collector who takes an interest in her work and introduces her to the New York art scene with its power brokers, celebrity and influence. In an ironic twist, it is in part Terry’s neurotically self-involved friend Hallie who helps her negotiate the differences between love, purpose and seduction.
     Terry is a reflective and observant narrator, tossing off literary references alongside vivid descriptions and critiques of the New York art scene and its poseurs as she recounts Rhinehart’s story and her own. While the resulting inside peek at the rarified cultural scenes is appealing, it sometimes has the forced feel of namedropping. Yet the novel effectively conveys the enormous personal courage that true creative expression can require; its portrait of Terry’s struggles are sensitive and believable. Lott’s writing is lovely and lyrical, and her themes of the place of art, the changing ways we love and the people we hold close over time lend texture to an intelligent and ambitious literary debut.
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