Art On Fire by Hilary Sloin

What if we are not aiming to reach our potential but to escape it, and therefore find our truth? Art On Fire forces us to ask ourselves this question.

What was the book about?:
Art on Fire is the apparent biography of subversive painter Francesca deSilva, the founding foremother of “pseudorealism,” who lived hard and died young. But in the tradition of Vladimir Nabokov’s acclaimed novel Pale Fire, it’s a fiction from start to finish. It opens with Francesca’s early life. We learn about her childhood love, the chess genius Lisa Sinsong, as well as her rivalry with her brilliant sister Isabella, who publishes an acclaimed volume of poetry at the age of twelve. She compensates for the failings of her less than attentive parents by turning to her grandmother who is loyal and adoring until she learns Francesca is a lesbian, when she rejects her. Francesca flees to a ramshackle cabin in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, working weekends at the flea market. She breaks into the gloomy basement of a house, where she begins her life as a painter. Much to her confusion and even dismay, fame comes quickly. Interspersed with Francesca’s narrative are thirteen critical “essays” on the paintings of Francesca deSilva by critics, academics, and psychologists—essays that are razor-sharp satires on art, lesbian life, and the academic world, puncturing pretentiousness with every paragraph. Art on Fire is a darkly comic, pitch-perfect, and fearless satire on the very art of biography itself.

Featured Tropes:
Fiction dressed as pseudo-non-fiction, coming out, family angst, 1980s, mental illness (trigger warning)

Book Strengths:
The blurb says darkly comic, and while there are intensely sharp and pointed observations that poke fun at the art world, the story affected me so deeply that I cried at the poignancy and unbearable sadness and futility of so many of the events. I know reviews are absolutely meant to be about the book, not the reviewer, but Sloin has absolutely either personal experience with or has researched so well the areas of bipolar disorder and depression, which infuses much of story, that this aspect hit me so hard in my mental illness heart that I gasped at the exactitude of the prose used for the characters’ torment. The writing is exquisite. In the beginning, it is ethereal, like the character of Isabella, Francesca’s gifted yet mentally ill sister. Then the writing builds a strength that underlines the layering of Francesca, as she becomes who she thinks she could be. I was drawn into the world of Francesca as she orbited irregularly through her short life. The people important to her orbited within her space, until they left, quietly or dramatically, which tore at Francesca’s heart. The structure of the book is one of a biography—there are footnotes, references to articles, mini essays about her art—all completely fabricated. It is astonishing.

Book weaknesses:
None. I went into this book without reading the blurb or anything about it, so I fully believed it to be a real biography of a real artist who lived and loved and looked for legitimacy from her family and in her heart. I even Googled her afterwards, only to discover that she didn’t exist at all. I felt great sadness about this because I so wanted Francesca to live, so I clung to the final footnote which delivers the possibility of hope.

Character Chemistry:
Lesbianism is woven into the plot, through Francesca’s growth as a person, but it is not the point of the story. It is a part of a whole. The sibling chemistry between Isabella and Francesca is fraught, pulled and pushed with elastic-like necessity. Lisa Sinsong is Francesca’s only love and their chemistry is one of love, separated by family expectations and the weight of legacy. I was distraught when a certain event occurred that delivered that weight as the final obligation to life.

Heat Rating
2 flames

The art in the story is not just Francesca’s paintings. It is Francesca herself. She is the flame, the one who finds the passion when she escapes the mundane. I cannot rave about this  book enough. It is wonderful. You must read it. 

Star Rating
5 stars (more if I could)

Would you like to grab a copy?