How much of an artist's life can be seen in an artist's work? Catherine Cantrell, asks that question in the first paragraph of her debut novel, Constance, then goes on to play with the idea for a couple of hundred pages.
Told from the point of view of the editor at a New York publishing house who discovers Constance's poetry, the novel introduces the reader bit by bit to this beautiful young literary artist. Whether or not you value the poetry as highly as does Morgan, the editor, you will be intrigued by Constance Chamberlain. She is dedicated to pure art and feels a kinship with Emily Dickinson, but also manages a secret relationship with Lou, a powerful older married man who was once her professor in business school.
Her professor where? That's right, in business school at Columbia. Don't all poets get an MBA? The editor's voice as she tells this tale is nonetheless convincing. A lonely young widow, Morgan becomes fascinated by Constance. She finds the young poet refreshing after meeting so many writers who pursue money first, and art, second.
Ever tempting the reader to see parallels between herself and Constance, the author gives the protagonist the same double-C initials as her own and a similar background, in upper class Lake Forest, Illinois. Both dedicate their first book simply, To My Mother. And for both, it's a novel that includes original poems.
Brought to the attention of Random House by writer William Styron, Catherine Cantrell seems likely to capture others' attention, too, with this haunting debut. Though the final pages, with their return to Constance's girlhood home, raise many questions, you come away with an answer to the big one. Yes, some artists do put very much of themselves into their art.
Anne Morris is a writer in Austin.