Rodin's Debutante (Hardcover)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), 9780547504193, 263pp.
Publication Date: March 1, 2011
Tommy Ogden, a Gatsbyesque character living in a mansion outside robber-baron-era Chicago, declines to give his wife the money to commission a bust of herself from the French master Rodin and announces instead his intention to endow a boys' school. Ogden's decision reverberates years later in the life of Lee Goodell, whose coming of age is at the heart of Ward Just's emotionally potent new novel.
Lee's life decisions--to become a sculptor, to sojourn in the mean streets of the South Side, to marry into the haute-intellectual culture of Hyde Park--play out against the crude glamour of midcentury Chicago. Just's signature skill of conveying emotional heft with few words is put into play as Lee confronts the meaning of his four years at Ogden Hall School under the purview, in the school library, of a bust known as Rodin's Debutante. And, especially, as he meets again a childhood friend, the victim of a brutal sexual assault of which she has no memory. It was a crime marking the end of Lee's boyhood and the beginning of his understanding--so powerfully under the surface of Just's masterly story--that how and what we remember add up to nothing less than our very lives.
Praise For Rodin's Debutante…
"Don't be misled by the title; this engaging coming-of-age tale has little to do with either Auguste Rodin or a debutante. Instead it begins early in the 20th century with Tommy Ogden, a rich, enigmatic Chicagoan who drunkenly decides one day to endow a boys' prep school. Flash forward a few decades to Lee Goodell, who attends Ogden Hall School for Boys and privately wants to become a sculptor. We follow his life, witnessing the two acts of violence that change him. Rodin's Debutante is a surprising story, never going where you expect it to, and Just's spare prose packs a solid emotional punch. A-" –Entertainment Weekly
"To his immense credit, Just doesn’t turn this into a whodunit—in fact, we never learn who committed the crimes—but is instead focused on the intricate, almost Jamesian unfolding of the personal and private lives of his sharply delineated characters. An understated and delicate offering by a master."--Kirkus Reviews
"Just extends his grand inquiry into family, honor, and injustice in his beguiling and unnerving seventeenth novel. Like An Unfinished Season (2004), this bildungsroman is set on Just's home ground, northern Illinois, where Tommy Ogden, a man of enormous inherited wealth, flagrant taciturnity, and an excessive avidity for shooting animals, turns his massive prairie mansion into an ill-conceived boys' school at the onset of WWI. Lee Goodell, the son of a judge, grows up in a nearby small town, a bucolic place until the Great Depression delivers tramps and a horrific sex crime. Lee, dreamy, kind, and willful, attends Ogden's school, then headed by a Melville fanatic, where he plays football and swoons over a sculpted bust by Rodin. Determined to become a sculptor, Lee rents a basement studio on Chicago's South Side, where a knife attack jeopardizes his artistic vocation and involves him in the lives of his poor, struggling neighbors and the mission of a compassionate African American doctor. Stealthily meshing the gothic with the modern, the feral with the civilized, in this mordantly funny yet profoundly mysterious novel, Just asks what divides and what unites us. What should be kept secret? Which teaches us more, failure or success? And of what value is beauty? HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Award-winning Just attracts more readers with each uniquely compelling novel."--Booklist, STARRED review