I read Semi-Sweet: A Novel of Love and Cupcakes last year and liked a lot. However it didn’t send me out looking for Ms. Meaney’s backlist. One reason is that I hadn’t read a novel with bittersweet elements in a while, since funny and laugh-out-loud books are typically my preference. But the impressive storytelling stayed in my mind. When I saw Life Drawing for Beginners, I knew I had to read it. And I am glad I did.
The cost of the adorable brown and black puppy in the pet store window is not in Audrey Matthews’ budget, but she fell in love anyway. Impulsively she decides that teaching a six-week class on life drawings is the perfect way to fund pet ownership. Her natural joie de vivre and experience as a secondary school art teacher makes her a natural for the job. And maybe an attractive man will sign up for the class. She is still hopeful that there is someone out there for her, but after waiting twenty years her optimism is a little tarnished. Little does she realize that her impulsive decision will become the catalyst that impacts not only her life, but the lives of her students and the pet store owner.
After winning 250 euros in the lottery, Polish immigrant Zarek Olszewski decides that is not selfish to keep 100 euros for himself, and just send 150 to his family. He saw the advertisement for the life drawing class and the lure proved irresistible. Of course with his gorgeous blue eyes and handsome looks he is eye candy for the females in the group.
James Sullivan's wife just up and disappeared one day. Of course suspicion immediately falls on James, turning him into a pariah within his own community. Two years later there is still no new information about his wife’s disappearance. However, after living under constant scrutiny and being the subject of gossip and innuendos, he realizes that things will never change in Donegal. If he is ever to have a normal life again, he needs to move away where he has no past. Paranoid that he will inadvertently give himself away, he eschews social activities. However, being a full time dad to his daughter is demanding. When a neighbor mentions that she is available to babysit every Tuesday, he jumps at the chance for a little free time. While life drawing classes are not his first choice it is the best available.
Michael Browne’s brusque exterior hides a world of hurt. His wife died when the children were still young. He did the best he could, but his son Ethan became involved with drugs. Michael did what he thought was best and kicked him out but Ethan never did vanquish his drug habit, later dying of a drug overdose. His daughter still blames him for her brother’s death and their relationship is distant. Now a young woman is begging for his help, claiming she loved Ethan and her son is Michael’s grandson.
Jackie Moore had big plans for college but a pregnancy after a holiday fling changed all that. She doesn’t make a lot of money and still lives at home with her parents and her son. When she sees an advertisement for modeling she is intrigued. Just how difficult could it be to take your clothes off in front of strangers? Still it might pay enough money so she can buy her son a Wii for Christmas.
These story arcs and the others in the book captured my imagination and under Ms. Meaney’s expert hands, the fascination never lets up. This is not a fast-paced book and definitely a character-driven story, but as it flows from one character to another as they face new challenges and changes, I was pulled into their lives. The vivid characterization transforms them from people in a book to authentic individuals with struggles, insecurities, hopes and dreams.
The book does have its sad moments but they are balanced by the sweetness of the characters discovering that even though they might not have gotten what they think they wanted, the future still looks promising.
Over this last year I balanced my reading more, mixing comedy books with books that managed to touch me on an emotional level or just make me think, and I'm glad I picked up Life Drawing for Beginners. This book did send me on a quest to glom other books by Ms. Meaney. As with Semi-Sweet, I thought of the characters long after I finished reading. If you are looking for a heartwarming story then look no further.
-- Leigh Davis
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