Skip to content

The Great Man

By Kate Christensen (Doubleday)

The theme of sexuality among septuagenarians in literature is all too rare, and so is finding women in their 70s and 80s who cuss with gusto. But then, The Great Man defies convention.

The novel revolves around Oscar Feldman (The Great Man), a deceased painter of female nudes; three women all still in love with him; and two biographers, each writing a book about the illustrious artist. The besotted women are Oscar's widow, Abigail, 78; his 74-year-old mistress of nearly 50 years, Teddy; and her seventysomething friend Lila. They're trying to guard a secret Oscar took to his grave—that his acclaimed artist sister, Maxine, not he, painted a female nude hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and bearing his name.

Why are these ladies so loyal? Go figure! He's called "a pathological narcissist" and "the biggest human baby in all of history" by Teddy because he cheated on Abigail his whole marriage and neglected their autistic son; carried on with Teddy, with whom he had twin daughters he also ignored; slept with others besides Abigail and Teddy; and seduced his best friend's wife. Remarks Maxine, 85, an uninhibited lesbian with her own steamy tales, to Abigail, Teddy, and Lila: "Look at us, four smart old bags with plenty to think about, fixated on my putz of a brother who's been dead for five years and wasn't especially nice to any of us."

They didn't all see it that way. "I loved who he was. I wouldn't have changed a thing about him," swears Teddy. "I wouldn't have married anyone else," vows Abigail, going so far as to bribe one of the biographers to write favorably about her late husband.

It would have been hard for a writer less accomplished than Christensen to not only get readers to care about these seemingly self-punishing characters but to believe they could have been in love with Oscar, and despite it, are likeable, strong women.

Issues of aging pervade The Great Man. Characters discuss spider veins, "arm dingle-dangle," "getting bald down there," trying to dress and look younger when their grandchildren visit, and, groan, wishing men didn't have to see them naked.

That Christensen, who is in her mid-40s, can so aptly capture not just the loneliness, losses, and angst, but also the acceptance, of growing old, is a testament to her tremendous skill. "Do everything you can to stave off old age!" advises Maxine. She believes, "I'm alone in life and likely will be until I die." Teddy muses, "Isn't it strange to be at the end of your life and feel you have so much more life in you."

But Teddy still has plenty of life left when she finally gives dead Oscar the heave-ho and falls in love with Lewis. "I am so excited," Lewis, the balding attorney, tells her. "Can this happen to people as old as we are? I had no idea."

Christensen's novel could have been dreary and depressing. She addresses grave topics—growing old is not a hoot—but her prose is breezy and fast-paced and the plot, entertaining. Through her characters, the author offers mature insights into aging and universalities with which the reader can relate. Her women, particularly Maxine and Teddy, ultimately come to terms with who they are and move on to full lives. "My wrinkles used to bother me in my early fifties," Teddy informs Lila. "But I don't mind them any more now that I've had time to get used to them. Now I feel like a well-worn old leather handbag with all sorts of intriguing bobby pins and sticks of gum in my crevices. No telling what you'll find if you go digging around."

Christensen has done extensive digging herself. And because of this, with broad strokes and fine lines, she has painted a first-rate portrait.

Sally Abrahms has been published in Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times, among other publications. She specializes in writing about aging for national magazines and corporations.

Read more Web-exclusive book reviews.