Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Fiona McFarlane’s “Art Appreciation” was originally published in the May 13, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

May 13, 2013


Fiona McFarlane makes this remark to interviewer Deborah Treisman about Henry, her main character in “Art Appreciation”:

I had in mind a line from “Brideshead Revisited,” in which Julia Flyte says of Rex Mottram, “He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed.” I wanted to take a man like that — a blank sort of man, living a fairly circumscribed life with quiet arrogance — and see what he would make of something extraordinary.

The question is, does Henry realize what it is that is extraordinary? He thinks it is the little lottery winnings his mother has won and is willing to share with him. What is extraordinary, though, is that any girl would have him. It is possible that by the end of the story his fiancé has wrought some changes in him — but then again, maybe not. The prose is so understated that the reader’s job is sort out McFarlane’s attitude.

Ellie is the girl who is willing to have Henry.

Why would we want to see a girl choose a man who isn’t a complete human being? Perhaps it is because McFarlane means us to see how Ellie is poised at the edge of a cliff — how perhaps she might be able to save herself from Henry,  given that she has this lifeboat — her idea of art. Or perhaps Henry is such a nonentity that he will give Ellie plenty of room to maneuver, and she has chosen him somewhat knowingly.

Henry is a dreary kind of man who lives his life with boring regularity: the dog track on Friday nights, respectful time with his mother, and a mistress /easy girl for Sunday nights. He is the kind of man who is defined by his taste in restaurants:

He went to a place near the station where he often liked to eat after work. The whole establishment felt boiled — boiled meat, wet raincoats and the undersides of shoes.

Ellie has chosen a safe man with what looks like safe habits, although the reader is not particularly convinced that he is also not going to be dangerous to Ellie’s health.

Unlike the reckless vision of Lethem’s tale last week, we have in McFarlane’s story limits on tone, limits on access to Ellie’s character, limits to the main character himself, and limits on vision. There’s a complicated novel here for the reader to write about the possibilities for growth in either Henry or Ellie or their marriage. Whether Henry is capable of tolerating Ellie’s growth does not appear actually possible. What is possible, though, is that Ellie might choose to limit her own growth to save her marriage. What will happen after the curtain falls is what’s interesting. Ellie has married a very narrow man, and she has thus put herself in a fair amount of danger. At the same time, I have to wonder if it is Ellie who has made the knowing match, and if it is Henry who is in danger. The severe understatement of this story provides numerous lines of inquiry — if you can stick with a story that starts with a man who isn’t really, in the author’s description,  “a complete human being at all.” Finally, the story forces you to ask if Henry, Ellie, or their marriage will have what it will take to survive the sixties.


Thanks, Betsy, for getting your thoughts up here so quickly! I have never heard of Fiona McFarlane before, so I’m excited to get to know her work. Her first novel, The Night Guess, comes out in October, and this is apparently not an excerpt! It’s a relatively long story, but I’ll have my thoughts up soon (I know I said that last week, but after hearing what others thought of “The Gray Goose” I lost steam and haven’t even tried it yet — I will read this one soon).

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