She thought about Hans Hartung, his deceptive technique — how the slashed and curved lines across the canvas appeared haphazard but were in fact painstakingly considered, arranged. She didn’t linger long here, though, because thinking about art was the least interesting way to experience it. The difference between reading the recipe and spooning in a bite of trembling lemon soufflé.
Becky Farwell lives two lives.
In one, she’s Becky, a hardworking, sharp, brilliant accountant who manages the finances of her small Illinois town. Amid financial crises, political upheaval, and her own private tragedy, Becky keeps the town afloat, to the bemusement and gratitude of its residents. Becky, always capable of shifting some money around to fund a desperately needed project. Becky, with her odd little habits, like insisting on picking up the office mail every day from the post office herself. Becky, who lives alone in the house where her single father raised her.
In another, she’s Reba, a ruthless art collector who will stop at nothing to acquire the pieces she wants — that she needs. Whom schemers in the art world will throw to the wolves and who, in turn, will throw others down into the pit with little more than a backwards glance. Reba won’t let a dead artist’s reticent estate stand between her and the artist’s most coveted works. Reba won’t allow the little issue of the global art market collapse or a few million dollars in debt get in the way of her ever-expanding collection of world-class masterpieces.
Given that the title of Emily Gray Tedrowe’s third novel, The Talented Miss Farwell, is a clear homage to Patricia Highsmith’s famous Ripley series, it would be fair to assume that Becky is a psychopath, a merciless narcissist without a conscience whose only earthly attachment is her obsession with what she calls her “activity,” an elaborate, decades-long con to build her art collection at the devastating expense of the town she was raised in and works for. But she is far from a psychopath. Her friendships are few, and like many people with addictions, her “activity” takes precedence over her relationships out of increasing desperation. What makes Becky such a fascinating, brilliant character is that she is, in fact, full of heart. She loves the people in her life. She loves Pierson, Illinois. She wants to give, and goes to great lengths (and makes tremendous sacrifices) to do so. But it becomes clear through the years that her “activity,” her con, will consume her life if she doesn’t pump the breaks. The question of the book is: will she stop before it’s too late?
My relationship to Becky is the best kind to have with a book character, which is to say, it’s complicated. Her financial acumen and unwillingness to allow sexism, classism, and elitism stand in her way make it impossible not to root for her, but at its heart, what she’s doing is criminal, and it’s not a victimless crime, either.
With Becky Farwell, Tedrowe has created one of the year’s most fascinating, complex, nuanced characters. I loved her, and I absolutely loathed her. Told in the close third person, the novel’s language is straightforward and unadorned, allowing Becky’s character development — and the development of her crime — take center stage. Every scene, every detail, feels necessary, which is just how Becky would want it.
The Talented Miss Farwell comes out September 29.
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