In “The Curiosities,” author Susan Gloss creates a cast of characters who all come together in the home of Betsy Barrett, a deceased philanthropist, who left instructions to create a residency program, or artist colony, in her Madison, Wisconsin mansion. The main character, Nell Parker, has a PhD in art and the outstanding bills from many failed IVF attempts to have a baby, to compel her to take the job. The artists for the first session have already been chosen, and Nell will run and oversee the program.
Gloss tells the story from alternating viewpoints with each artist, Nell, and even the deceased Betsy, each telling part of the story. Each character is very different, and several have experienced loss. Nell lost her premature baby when the baby was born too early to survive. She has still not recovered from that loss, and the three failed attempts at having another baby have left her depressed and bereft as she had always thought she would be a mother.
Odin, the only male viewpoint in the story, is an artist who works with metal. His girlfriend was a gallery owner, and she exhibited his work and encouraged him. Her unexpected death left him feeling guilty and alone, and the fact that she had completed the application for the residency program without telling him makes him feel even more guilty. Paige is the youngest artist and perhaps the neediest. She doesn’t feel creative unless she’s in the beginning stages of a relationship — and when the relationship lasts too long, her creative juices dry up, so she moves on. Annie is the old hippie in the group. She made a name in the 70s while involved with protests, creating art about the subjects and themes. Now she needs a place to work on a subject that perhaps is more meaningful than any she has done before. And finally, Betsy’s story is told. The reader learns about her childhood, her relationship with her husband, her wealthy lifestyle, her love of travel, and above all, her love of art — collecting it, studying it, supporting it.
Some of the chapters are poignant, such as when Nell and her husband mourn the loss of their daughter. Others are exciting, detailing Betsy’s shopping trips and traveling the world with her husband. Her exotic, privileged life is one most can only dream of. The artists, on the other hand, are in the process of struggling to perfect their art and truly express their vision.
Each chapter features a different “piece” at the start, one of Betsy’s pieces of art, and each piece ends up having a role in that chapter of the story. The character reveals are carefully plotted, and Gloss shows each character’s personal struggle and growth over the course of the residency. All the characters, except Betsy, change and comes to terms with what they have been struggling with. And Gloss does a beautiful job when she shows how Betsy’s life becomes an inspiration for Nell. The ending leaves the readers with something to ponder and something for book clubs to discuss.
Please note: This review is based on the final, paperback book provided by William Morrow, the publisher, for review purposes.