In the lens, a daughter redefined

A mother's pursuit of art has lasting effects on her subject.

Published May 27, 2007

It is the sad duty of parents to be guardians of childhood. In this hypersexualized world, innocence is a vanishing commodity. But sometimes it's the parent who prematurely shoves a child into the adult world. And sometimes it happens quite by accident.

Black & White, Dani Shapiro's excellent new novel, tells of a loving war between mother and daughter and how a parent's ambition forever changed the trajectory of her child's life.

As a struggling young photographer, Ruth Dunne discovered that she had the perfect subject under her roof: her younger daughter, Clara. What began innocently - mother photographing her nude 4-year-old romping in the country - became an obsession. When Ruth's Clara Series began attracting serious art-world attention, she put art ahead of motherhood, with disastrous results for her family.

For Clara - still being photographed nude by her mother at age 14 - the pain of a lost childhood becomes too much to bear. When her father first sees the nude photos of his 4-year-old, he is furious and demands that Ruth stop. She does, but only for a while.

At 18, Clara runs away and makes a new life on an island off the New England coast. But even in this sanctuary, her mother intrudes. Clara's sister, Robin, calls to report that their mother is dying. When she comes home, Clara is stunned to find that her mother plans to assemble the Clara Series for a book to be published posthumously.

Shapiro writes with the narrative velocity of a good mystery novelist, and she's fearless as she examines this complex family from all of its angles. Black & White is a rich, compelling story that says a lot about families and what we all do to each other. As Clara mentally lists her mother's faults, she tallies her own shortcomings as a parent and ponders the path her mother sent her on. At the end, this much is certain: Ruth had taught her daughter how to forgive.

William McKeen teaches journalism at the University of Florida.


Black & White

By Dani Shapiro

Knopf, 256 pages, $24