Rodin’s Débutante by Ward Just: Book Review

Rodin's Debutante
Rodin's Debutante
by Ward Just
image: Houghton Mifflin
At the outset of Ward Just's thoughtful new novel, Rodin's Débutante, the reader is treated to a glimpse of Parisian sculptor, Auguste Rodin, at work for two days sculpting the bust of an anonymous eighteen year old girl; a Chicago débutante. The magnificent piece of marble sculpture, although a minor Rodin, would eventually become the centerpiece of not only The Ogden School for Boys, but of the novel itself. It becomes the focal point that railroad tycoon heir, Tommy Ogden's wife, Marie, wishes her own bust of marble to be, but is denied. It also becomes the catalyst by which, over a heated dinner discussion, Tommy Ogden decides to abandon the family manor and transform it into a mid-western prep school for young men.

The Artist and the Millionaire

One of those young men benefiting from Ogden's whim, is Lee Goodell, the son of an Illinois probate judge. Rodin's sculpture, from its place of prominence in Ogden Hall's Library, weaves its spell on preppie Lee, its simple frozen beauty, which everyone believes to be Marie Ogden, inspires him to a career as a sculptor in marble. Lee grows up in New Jesper, Illinois, a small town near the shores of Lake Michigan, where, in his pre-prep school days, one of his female schoolmates is raped on campus. The incident, despite the town elder's best efforts, comes to define New Jesper, leading to the Goodell family's, and other's flight to the North Shore of Chicago.

Just shuffles between Ogden and Goodell, overlapping their lives at the end of Lee's prep school football career. The team, after a number of winless seasons, one-eighties into an undefeated year. This comes with the help of an ex-Green Bay Packers coach whom, to acquire, Ogden surreptitiously pulls some strings. After the last game, Lee chances to meet Tommy Ogden near the field, who with typical cynicism, doles out some unsolicited advice. "...It's good early in life to experience success. It puts you on the right track for later on, when it counts. You don't learn a god damned thing from defeat. That's the wrong track and defeat stays with you and becomes the expected thing. It's a chain around your neck..."

Later in their conversation the now reclusive millionaire blesses Lee's desire to sculpt, handing him a Chicago art gallery's business card. Lee thanks him saying, "I want to say one thing to you, Mr Ogden. The words came blunt-edged and Tommy Ogden cocked his head, his eyes wary. Lee said, I believe Rodin's bust of your late wife is a wonderful work of art. It's a great thing to have in the library. It's an inspiration. It's been an inspiration to me." But Ogden debunks the myth, denying his wife as the model for the work of art. He shatters the legend in Lee's mind.

The Role of Memory in Rodin's Débutante

Memory plays a major role in Ward Just's story. After speaking with Lee, Tommy drives off in his Cadillac convertible, the red tail lights fading into the distance. This triggers for Lee a series of memories. But memory is subjective. Lee remembers the hobos down by the train trestle near his childhood home, hearing about a murder of one these transients, then only a week later the rape of Magda, his schoolmate. He remembers eavesdropping on the discussion between all the town elders -- the police chief, the newspaper publisher, the factory owner, and his father the judge -- as they conspired to save their town from ignominy. These memories haunt and sustain Lee through his life.

In this novel, Mr. Just seems to be saying that memory, or how we remember key moments in our lives, may, if we let them, define us. Magda has no recollection of the crime perpetrated against her, it's all blank to her and the rapist is never brought to justice. When she returns to New Jesper years later to meet Lee for lunch they wind up talking about her attack. Magda revealing her deep shame and rage says of her assailant, "I wish he were dead, I want him dead. It's unfair that he's not, that he's walking around like anyone else. And I'm the only one who could accuse him. Only me. And my memory is gone. I'm no help at all." Her mind's defense imprisons her while setting her attacker free.

After college Lee moves into a studio in a dangerous neighborhood in Chicago's Hyde Park. There he is attacked, knifed by a two young boys from the block. As a result, he wears an indelible scar, which runs in an arc from just below his eye to his mouth. The scar, he comes to see, reminds him where he's been, how he's lived, but just as he does not allow the attack to deter him from his art, he does not allow the scar to define him. It fades.

Perception Vs. Reality

Gus Allprice, one of Lee's teacher's at The Ogden School for Boys, was a devotee of Herman Melville, preaching from one of his South Sea novels, OmooOmoo, to Gus, portrayed the ideal; Tahiti, Tahitian life. Tommy Ogden hunted avidly throughout his life, he found true peace holding a gun between himself and his prey, in the intimacy of the pursuit. Lee found bliss in a slab of marble, the possibilities of his art were infinite, evolving from its finite form. Magda lost her identity to evil incarnate, becoming a shameful legend to her community, a community where the truth was never allowed to appear. Rodin's marble statue of that prepossessing débutante becomes a legend at Ogden Manor, where all believe it is the beautiful likeness of Marie Ogden. All of these examples from Just's novel juxtapose the ideal, whether sublime or infamous, with reality; They appose memories with actuality, Art with life. What the author so eloquently illustrates in this work is the space in between.

~Book Jones~ 4 Stars
  • Title Rodin's Débutante
  • Author Ward Just
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (March 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547504195
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547504193