Utopia by Heidi Sopinka

I’ve been mostly alternating my reading this summer between books from my TBR piles and new review copies, which has been a rather nice way to read. Getting to read my own choices between copies from my review pile has been good, but also, I’ve enjoyed the review copies more too, and have been lucky to have some super reads – a huge thank you to all the publishers for sending me copies.

One loose theme in my reading has been novels set in the arts world, I’m drawn to them like a magnet, but there seem to have been a lot of new arty novels recently. I still have Tiepolo Blue on my pile to read, I recently reviewed The Forgery by Ave Barrera, and I have Camilla Grudova’s Children of Paradise set in an indie cinema to review shortly. But let’s turn to Utopia

Romy and Billy are a power couple in the California art world. Billy is feted and collected; Romy is the better artist, specialising in coloured light installations, but it’s harder for a woman to make an impact, they can’t achieve the same prices as the men. Everyone is slightly jealous of Romy and Billy, but underneath, is their relationship solid?

Paz arrives back in California, fresh out of art school in NYC, and rapidly becomes a fan of Romy, and the older woman takes her under her wing, which makes the others all jealous. Romy is not only talented, but a beautiful and daring enigma, a leading voice in the circle of women artists there who are really beginning to stretch their feminist muscles. As Romy confides in Paz one day, telling her about a conversation she’d had with a male artist:

…one of them, I think it was Jude, turned to me when I was talking about my colored-light piece and cut me off saying, “Weren’t you all just in girdles with purses to match your shoes.” And he likes my work,’ she said to Paz. ‘And then he told a joke. “Riddle: why haven’t women made great work of art? Answer: because they are great works of art.”

Paz thought of all the men she’d encountered who’d rendered the female nude as meat, a knot of heat in her throat. Romy looked at her with the quality she had of slight otherworldly detachment, maybe in part from her girl-in-the-forest upbringing, or maybe from having see too much Bergman at a very young age. ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to find sexism by way of artistic infantilization a bummer.’

It’s not long after she has given birth to a baby girl, known as Flea, that Romy dies in mysterious circumstances–it’s one of those, Did she jump? Did she fall? Or was she pushed? cases. Distraught Billy is in the frame – naturally. However, it’s a matter of mere weeks before he chooses Paz as his new partner, and replacement mother for Flea. Then he decamps to Italy on a job, leaving Paz and Flea to muddle through in a house full of Romy’s things, haunted by her notebooks and sketches. Paz is stuck with the baby, but she really cares for her, seeing Romy in her eyes. Through the notebooks and talking to the other women artists, Paz discovers that Romy was planning a big artwork out in the desert, and when postcards start arriving in her writing, Paz hands Flea over to Billy’s mother, Ingrid (a reluctant grandmother), and heads out for the desert where she’ll have her own adventure.

I admire artists’ creative drive, even if I don’t always appreciate it fully or, in the case of many conceptual art installations, understand what it’s all about. There is one scene, horrific to me, however, I can imagine it happening in back in those heady days, where Paz agrees to take part in a piece of performance art – lying naked on the floor of a white room while Cotton, a male artist(!) dressed in white too, flips lit matches at her. She can’t react, even when one lands on her shoulder burning it – and no-one watching can help. Ugh!

Alongside that urge to create is a need to sell, to get recognition through high values paid for your work, to be at all the openings networking. This is ever stronger these days as the stereotype of the penniless artist creating for the love of it no longer works. This dichotomy is at the centre of the art world where the agents broker the deals and it runs strongly through the underside of this novel especially in the values afforded to mens’ work over womens’.

Paz’s coming of age as an artist in her own right is the main story though, overcoming being Romy’s protégé as her own talent blossoms. As for what happened to Romy, we do find out, although the press release for the book gave rather too a large hint by comparing Utopia to another classic novel, which mercifully isn’t in the blurb and I won’t mention it here! I particularly loved the desert sequences in this novel which, as Paz suffers from heat and dehydration, have their own air of surrealism. The Californian desert provides an irresistible setting to contrast with the intensity of the LA Crowd, and reminding me of other desert-set novels I’ve enjoyed like Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins and Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru – those who live out there certainly have a different way of life; it may seem laid-back, but survival is at its core.

Utopia is Canadian author Sopinka’s second novel, and I it didn’t disappoint, I loved the contrast between the brittleness of the LA art world and the luminous and febrile intensity of the desert. I would say that if you enjoy the books of her fellow Canadian Emily St John Mandel and fancy something arty, you will probably like Utopia too. Her first book, The Dictionary of Animal Languages also features art and artists set amongst the Surrealists in Paris just before WWII, inspired by Leonora Carrington – I now have to read it!

Source: Review copy – thank you. Scribe Hardback, 255 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

7 thoughts on “Utopia by Heidi Sopinka

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Sounds fascinating, as does her first book – may have to check these out!

    And yes, what a good way to read – I’m trying to do the same at the moment, mixing review copies with whatever takes my fancy, and it does work nicely!

Leave a Reply