I saw that Ward Just’s new novel, Rodin’s Debutante was on President Obama’s summer reading list, and since it had a Chicago setting, I decided to read it myself. I found the book to be disappointing, so my advice to you, Mr. President, is if you haven’t got around to it, skip this book and go on to another on your list.
The early part of the book takes place in the fictional New Jesper, an industrial town located north of Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan. It seemed to sound like Waukegan, but I was never clear if Just meant it to be Waukegan, since nothing definitive of the town’s identity ever emerged from the story’s narrative. Then the book moved to Chicago’s South Side, Hyde Park and Woodlawn, where I didn’t feel the writing encompassed the personalities of these Chicago communities.
I thought that the characters in the novel were cliched, the actions predictable and the language prosaic. The protagonist Lee is someone you don’t emphasize with, in a book that is trying to mimic, in writing and tone, the cinematic ambience of Orson Welles’ great film classic Citizen Kane.
There was nothing, in fact, great or classic about Rodin’s Debutante. With apologies to the sculptor Rodin, it is a bust in the literary sense.