It is always a special treat and enlightening to attend an author talk, and recently I was thrilled to hear Katharine Weber speak about her new book, Still Life With Monkey with contributing editor and former Book Review section editor for Publisher’s Weekly, Sybil Steinberg. Between research and literary knowledge, the intelligence on the stage was vast. With sophisticated language and deep characters, Weber’s Still Life With Monkey is a must read for all book groups. There are many stories within the story and much to discuss.
Duncan Wheeler is a talented architect and owner of his own firm in New Haven, CT. He was visiting his Thimble Islands site and while driving home on I95 with his assistant, was in a car accident. His assistant was killed and he survived but suffered injury that resulted in becoming a quadriplegic. His wife Laura, is an art conservator at the Yale Art Gallery, fixing broken things for a living. She sees Duncan fall into depression, and while she struggles with her own thoughts of letting go her dream to become a mother, she reduces her hours at work so she can take care of her husband. Every day had become “a broken series of unsuccessful gestures”, his will to live is wavering, and so to add to the already growing number of hired aides to help take care of Duncan, and to lift his spirits, she requests a capuchin monkey to become a part of their in home support. Ottoline was feisty, charming and lovable – a welcoming character who gave Duncan some pleasure as he thought about how he might live and how he might exit this life. Will sitting around in a wheelchair all day be Duncan’s life? Is being alive the same as living?
Not only are we forced to ponder what a life worth living may be, but Katharine Weber teaches us about architecture and art conservation, about care for a paraplegic and about helper monkeys. In CT, helper monkeys are not legal, but in MA there is a legitimate program that has been around for close to 40 years called Helping Hands. Katherine had the opportunity to meet a married couple and their helper monkey, Farah on numerous occasions, and witnessed the benefits the monkey provides like buttoning and unbuttoning, page turning, social interaction, bonding and emotional connection. Farah is 7 lbs and 36 years old and is living with her 2nd and last family, as 40 years old is life expectancy for a monkey living in captivity. Weber’s human characters are not based on real people, but Ottoline the capuchin was based on the charming and lovable Farah.
The character of Ottoline adds texture to an already rich story that highlights ideas about twins, children and secrets. Duncan is a twin and had been considered the original, and his brother Gordon, the copy. Duncan had a big life, was highly educated, married with a big job, and in contrast, Gordon had a speech impediment and rode his bike to work at a bookstore. Interesting to examine their relationship and Gordon’s relationship with Laura, Duncan’s wife. Also, worth looking at is the impact the neighborhood children have on Duncan’s mental health, and the effect secrets may have on relationships and self worth.
Still Life With Monkey is a story about life and relationships. It is not a tearjerker yet it is filled with compassion and humor. I highly recommend it for book clubs and discussion.
About the Author:
Katharine’s fiction debut in print, the short story “Friend of the Family,” appeared in The New Yorker in January, 1993.
Her first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (of which that story was a chapter), was published by Crown Publishers, Inc. in 1995 and was published in paperback by Picador in 1996. She was named by Granta to the controversial list of 50 Best Young American Novelists in 1996.
Her second novel, The Music Lesson, was published by Crown Publishers, Inc. in 1999, and was published in paperback by Picador in 2000. The Music Lesson has been published in fourteen foreign editions.
The Little Women was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2003 and by Picador in 2004. All three novels weren named Notable Books by The New York Times Book Review. Writing in The New York Times, Richard Eder said, “Katharine Weber’s novel, which stops being droll only to be funny and almost never stops being exceedingly smart, is a hermit crab. Creeping into the whelk shell of Louisa May Alcott’s celebrated novel, it avails itself of the spirals to do double and triple twists inside them.”
Katharine’s fourth novel, Triangle, which takes up the notorious Triangle Waist company factory fire of 1911, was published in 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in 2007 by Picador. It was longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, was a Finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award and the Paterson Fiction Prize, and was the winner of the Connecticut Book Award for Fiction.
True Confections, Katharine’s fifth novel, was published in January 2010 by Shaye Areheart Books, and was published in paperback by Broadway Books in December, 2010. In January Broadway also brought out a new edition of The Music Lesson. Triangle and The Music Lesson are now available as ebooks, too.
Her sixth book, a memoir, The Memory Of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family’s Legacy of Infidelities, was published by Crown in July 2011, and by Broadway in 2012.
Her new novel, Still Life With Monkey, from Paul Dry Book is available now.
Katharine’s maternal grandmother was the songwriter Kay Swift. Since Swift’s death in 1993, Katharine has been a Trustee and the Administrator of the Kay Swift Memorial Trust, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting the music of Kay Swift. This work includes the first Broadway musical with a score by a woman, “Fine and Dandy,” and several popular show tunes of the era, among them “Fine and Dandy” and “Can’t We Be Friends?”