Self-Portrait with Boy
In Self-Portrait with Boy, set in the early 1990s, aspiring photographer Lu Rile lived in a warehouse in Brooklyn and survived by working in a pretentious natural foods grocery store. Although the other squatters were also artists, she kept to herself, still burdened by the taunts of her high school classmates.
Lu had been working on a self-portrait project in which she took a photograph of herself each day. On day four hundred, she set up a photograph in which she was jumping into the frame in front of the large window in her apartment. To get the shot right required practice timing her jumps, but finally, she was satisfied she had captured the image she was seeking.
Shortly after, there was a commotion on the roof where the neighbors where having a party to which she wasn’t invited. Some of the party-goers rushed outside while others looked over the railing. Later, Lu learned that nine-year-old Max Schubert-Fine had accidentally fallen from the roof to his death.
When she developed her film, she saw a smudge on one frame in the negative. On the print, she realized that the smudge was Max falling. Despite capturing such a horrific moment, the photograph itself was a marvel of composition, the best of all her self-portraits, and she was convinced that it would be her entree into the art world.
All she needed was to tell Max’s parents, Kate and Steve. Lu visited their apartment with every intention to broach the subject, but she became caught up in Kate’s orbit, captured by her grief. Her friendship with Kate gave her a sense of belonging she’d never felt before, and the more she spent time with Kate, the harder it was to ask her about showing the photograph at a gallery.
At the same time, Lu’s financial pressures increased. The owner of the warehouse where they were living disappeared, and the tenant board hired a lawyer to whose fees Lu was expected to contribute. Her father was afflicted with cataracts that were robbing him of his eyesight, and she had to help him pay for his home health aid.
Lu wrestled with what was the moral thing, with what was the right thing for her, with what was the necessary thing. If she showed the painting, she didn’t know if she could bear losing Kate, yet if she let the opportunity go by, she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to produce something as magnificent again.
Posing these interesting questions, Self-Portrait with Boy offers a tantalizing moral puzzle, and it depicts struggling artists in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn in the early 1990s in a way I hadn’t seen before. Although Lu is a photographer and does see the world through her camera lens, this is a frequently used theme and could have been more developed here. One awful strand of the book is the legal status of the building and the terrible lengths an owner will stoop to to force current tenants to leave.
I never quite gelled with the characters. I had a difficult time feeling empathy for Lu and her conundrum, and though it was certainly easy to feel empathy for Kate, the grieving mother, it was never quite clear what her motivations were in befriending Lu. Additionally, there was a supernatural element to the story that I didn’t care for. While Self-Portrait with Boy operates from an interesting premise and setting, for me, it never completely lived up to its potential.