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Reviewed by Jon Michael Miller for Readers' Favorite
Young Mother with Red Hair by M.A. Dunn is a masterpiece. The author set up a writing challenge, which—if completed successfully—could be nothing else but miraculous. The chosen form, however, is daring. The woman with red hair (and freckles) is Jane Smith, an English teacher on maternity leave, married to Michael, a scholar specializing in Thomas Hardy. Vivian Young, a master portrait artist on the level of Rodin, attends one of Michael’s lectures and happens to sit beside Jane, is taken with her, and asks her to sit for him. Michael’s favorite painter happens to be Mr. Young, and he eagerly encourages Jane to accept the offer. So, here is the writing challenge: Jane is to compose a long letter to Michael describing her time posing—and much more—with the world-renowned artist. The letter is to be written in the first person, completely from Jane’s point of view as if she can possibly recall exact conversations, precise actions, exact meals, and fleeting glances from months past, requiring significant suspension of disbelief from the reader. And Dunn must make it all readable. And we readers—and in this case fabulously fortunate ones—get to read the letter over her shoulder. Not many writers would be brave enough to attempt such an approach. But here Dunn’s frank, honest, exquisite account of Jane’s actions and her feelings about them is simply mind-bendingly superb. Add to that Dunn's flawless and elegant prose, and we have an extraordinary triumph. And this humble book reviewer has the great privilege of telling the world!
“It’s a strange world, this world of Vivian…,” Jane writes. Early on, as Jane reclines nude before him, Vivian slyly recounts the myth of Nyssia, a wife whose husband admires her beauty so intensely he can’t resist showing her off to his best friend; the wife, angered at being treated as a visual object, joins in her husband’s murder and marries the friend. Vivian is infamous for his many lovers (“I eat when I’m hungry,” he propounds). Jane’s experience with the artist grows increasingly complex as do her feelings for her husband. She enters this “strange world” of paints, canvases, betrayal, hedonism, affairs, endless studio sittings, and above all, art—and is soon seduced by it all. The book is unabashedly erotic as Jane uninhibitedly writes of her sexuality and its web of feelings and complications.
I felt a bit of a voyeur reading over Jane’s shoulder, but Dunn fuses the sex into the milieu of sensations on the level of the finest literature. I often forgot that the “you” of the novel is Jane’s husband, not I, the reader, but the first-person account of Jane’s often anguished personal growth and its raw honesty, drew me in so that I often forgot it was a letter to her husband and not to the reader. Yes, in our canon of great literature, there’s Lady Chatterley, and now there’s Jane Smith, Young Mother with Red Hair. Dunn superbly meets the challenge of this innovative approach where few writers would dare to tread. The result is magnificent.