by Katie Ward
NY: Scribner, 2012
I had seen very positive reviews of Girl Reading: A Novel by Katie Ward and decided this was a book I definitely wanted to read. A novel about the stories behind works of art that depicted girls reading? This was a combination of several of my favorite things - history, art, and reading. When I saw a copy on the "new" shelf at my favorite local library, I grabbed it with enthusiasm. I eagerly delved into its pages.
The first chapter, based on Simone Martini's "Annunciation," painted in 1333 reminded me a bit of "Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Tracy Chevalier. The story was engrossing, but one thing kept jumping out at me. There were no quotation marks and no attributions to speakers of any kind. It was incredibly distracting. While my brain finally adjusted to the literary device and it became less noticeable, it still seemed to distract from the mission of the book - to reveal the secret lives behind the works of art.
A second question that presented itself was why this was called a novel when it was actually a collection of short stories. Admittedly, they were all united by theme, but that can be true of a short story collection as well. It wasn't until the last chapter that the stories were tied together and I understood why this was, in fact, a novel.
It turns out "Girl Reading" is actually science fiction! The last chapter takes place in 2060 when people live largely in a virtual world known as mesh. They wear i-specs almost all the time which allow them to interact with people and places in a simulated fashion. The previous chapters have been courtesy of "Sybil," a type of artificially intelligent being that could look at art (only these selected few works so far) and reveal glimpses of the mysteries existing beneath.
In many ways, the last chapter serves as a cautionary tale of what may happen if we continue to neglect real places and people in order to cultivate virtual relationships. In this future world, no one gets to experience the real art anymore. It is only available virtually so that it may be "preserved," rather than experienced up close.
"Girl Reading" was billed as inventive and unique. This it certainly was. I can see it as a good Book Club read - Ward touches on many feminist issues such as pregnancy as a result of rape, lesbianism, and a young girl coming into her sexuality. It would certainly foster much debate. I found this novel intriguing, if not what I expected. It definitely made me think.