Margery Williams Bianco is still revered today as the author of the children's classic, The Velveteen Rabbit; for her artist daughter, Pamela, a child prodigy, fame was more fleeting, and she is today pretty much forgotten. Pamela's father, Francesco, arranged the first exhibit for the pre-teen in Turin, Italy. By the time she was thirteen and her work was featured at a gallery in London, the girl was a celebrity. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney brought the Bianco family to Greenwich Village, where Pamela's fame only increased. She was featured in articles in Harper's Bazaar and Vanity Fair, sought after by celebrities, compared to Bottacelli. Francesco secured commissions for her to do illustrations for top magazines.
But there was a dark side to Pamela. She often suddenly fell into a rabbit hole, as Margery put it, and none could reach her. Her paintings went from light and airy sylvan scenes filled with laughing children to dark, somber still life canvases. She was hospitalized several times throughout her life for mental illness, episodes that devastated Margery who compared them to "leaving your dog at the shelter." From thirteen until her early twenties, Pamela harbored an insanely intense passion for Welch poet and author Richard Hughes, who called himself Diccon. When an explosive scene finally burst the bubble of her hopes and dreams, she impulsively married an unknown poet. The marriage was never a union of spirits. Indeed, she went to Italy and he to Copenhagen, and they didn't see each other for fourteen months. When Robert left her shortly after their son's birth, she clearly referred to her mother's book, "And I was what I had always been: a rabbit with no fur, no hind legs. Nothing more than a sewed up sack of sawdust." The child, Lorenzo, was bright and happy, without his mother's dark side.
This fictionalized version of their lives opens in 1944 in Greenwich Village, when Pamela comes to her mother's home, talking frantically, endlessly until she collapses in her old bedroom and sleeps the entire day.
In alternating brief chapters, Margery and Pamela tell the family's story, tracing their movement from Turin to England to New York, chronicling good times and bad. Usually their meanderings reach back to the past, Pablo Picasso drawing with a young Pamela, the time the girl was sent away to study with an artist and felt exiled and miserably homesick. But the narrative always comes back to the current moment--Margery wondering how long Pamela will sleep, what she should do when she wakes, what she should say, and Pamela lying in her bed, studying the pattern of the wallpaper, dreaming of the large canvases she'll paint, vowing to tell Lorenzo all about his father. She knows she'll never do these things. Occasional short passages leap ahead to 1977 when Pamela, now older and living alone in straitened circumstances, receives a letter from her ex-husband. Forty-six years too late, she thinks.
Throughout the novel, the characters move as though actors on a stage, each playing out their roles. Pamela, the mercurial, unpredictable daughter, obsessed with Diccon and her own feelings of inadequacy and guilt; Margery, the almost passive mother, the calm point in the storm but one who worries constantly about her daughter and what she could have done differently, how she could have helped Pamela; Francesco, the intellectual, articulate bookseller, friend to the famous, but with an overweening ambition for his daughter and subject to his own, lesser bouts with depression. And lost in it all is Cecco, Pamela's beloved older brother who somehow manages to wrest a normal childhood out of his family. Later, there is Pamela's red-haired son, Lorenzo, after the de Medici of that name. What child wants to be known as Lorenzo, Margery wonders.
Reading this novel is neither easy nor fast. The reader spends a lot of time in the mind of madness. Pamela paces, she thinks repetitively, at one point repeating endlessly, "Nothing seems anything, nothing seems anything, nothing seems anything." Sometimes her recall seems rational; at other times, as a reader, you are aware you are listening to an incredibly sick woman.
Laurel Davis Huber deserves praise for the complex structure she created to tell this previously unknown story. She succeeds in making it painfully real. Endnotes present the truth and make it clear Huber has seldom strayed from the facts. She mined letters and archives, biographies and articles from The New Yorker for information. When she invented a character or a place, the endnotes make that clear.
The end of the book comes rather suddenly, as the narrative moves beyond that day in 1944, with life-changing events for Pamela in the last sixty pages. To reveal them would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, there is a wonderful coming full circle in some ways, spurred by Pamela's re-reading of The Velveteen Rabbit. Pamela married again; she painted and held a major exhibition, well received by critics and resulting in welcome sales and income. But it didn't last. She was institutionalized at the time of her death, though that is not in the book.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Laurel Davis Huber has worked as communications director for a botanical garden, edited a corporate newsletter, taught high school English, and been a development officer for a private school and Amherst College. She has taken several writing residencies at the Vermont Studio Center. She and her husband have homes in New Jersey and Maine. Visit her website.
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