IT'S A SHOWBIZ cliche to talk about a novel (or movie or play) that will make you laugh and cry, but here's one that does. In The Girl with the Botticelli Face, W. D. Valgardson has written a very funny (often hilarious) chronicle of sexual politics in which quick wit resonates with hurt and inner pain. It's a contemporary tale of a man who long ago lost the thread of love and physical contact that weaves sanity into life. At the same time, Valgardson's story is a metaphor for the male search through the thicket of sexual confusion and violence to the place in the psyche where hope lies buried. Readers of both genders can't help but be moved.
The novel tells the story of Bob, a lonely middle-aged academic and poet. He has become obsessed with the disappearance of the title character, Sharon, his favourite waitress in a local cafe. On the face of it, Bob doesn't really need this distraction when more immediate concerns threaten to derail him completely. Chief among them is his miserable marriage to a flea-market entrepreneur whose private cult of "reality" would drive a more self-assured spouse right out the door ("'Fantasy is for children before the age of six," she tells Bob. "After that, it's lying."'). Imagine a woman who combines her love of secondhand kitsch and hyper-feminism by scraping the beards off plaster statues of Jesus and adding breasts to produce a kinder, gentler deity. And that's only for starters.
Tongue-in-cheek it may be, but after a string of these crazed incidents, we stop laughing and wonder why Bob is idiot enough to take part in this farce. We soon find out. His curiosity about Sharon's disappearance parallels his own search (with a psychiatrist) in the lost terrors of the unconscious, where past events choke off his ability to give love and to care for anyone who would love him well. Floating up through the layers of his psyche is another missing soul, the mysterious image of a young girl, her significance held at bay by Bob's childlike assumption that long ago he'd somehow killed her.
As he delves into his private troubles, Bob searches out friends and acquaintances of Sharon, connecting with a string of earthy characters whose vibrant lives reveal the coldness of his own: Demetryo, the cafe owner who doles out sexual advice, Gloria, a straight-talking single mother, Karmen, the live wire who jump-starts Bob's sex life during office hours (a raunchy bit of satire, not for the easily offended), and many more.
Gradually Bob starts to defrost, but his wit is as brittle as glass. When insight finally comes, it feels as if he crashes through his own wry defences, straight through language and down to the hell in his psyche. What he finds there - and in his search for Sharon - are two powerful - and quite different - realities. Each is a comment on the male psyche, on the breadth of love and tenderness that cowers behind pain and on the terrible violence that, in Bob's words, is "pain unheard."
The Girl with the Boticelli Face is a funny, sexy, and very moving novel. W. D. Valgardson knows how to speak wisely and gently to the missing pieces in all of us.